Category Archives: John Muir Trail

To the top of Whitney, and beyond

The rain that threatened Crabtree Junction all evening long never reached where we were camping. I got up at 4 am and the sky was ablaze with stars. The display rivaled any I’d seen. The Milky Way was obvious and I’m sure I would’ve spotted a few satellites had I taken the time. I was on a mission however. After a quick breakfast of the last of my peanut butter and tortillas I packed up my tent for, hopefully, the last time on this trip.

Richard was also soon ready to roll. His breakfast was a combination of instant Starbucks coffee, Carnation Instant Breakfast and powdered milk mixed into some cold water. It looked and sounded pretty rough but it was how he started every morning. After an initial slug of the concoction he was ready to roll. Headlamps pushed back the darkness as we started the long climb towards Mt Whitney.

The trail was pretty obvious and the glow of the headlamps was enough to navigate without much trouble. On the 2 ½ miles to Guitar Lake the elevation rose 800 feet to 11,500. The steady climb was enough to keep me warm despite rather cool temperatures. Before I got there though, I told Richard I was going to step off the trail for a few minutes. He readily agreed and said he’d be doing the same. We were running out of time to legally “shit in the woods” and neither of us wanted to be stuck on Whitney, using the “wag bags” we’d been carrying the entire trip.

Guitar Lake at dawn

Guitar Lake at dawn

The sky was just starting to lighten in the east when we made it to Guitar Lake. A number of hikers had obviously camped there the night before and several headlamps could be seen moving upward in the distance. A small, partially frozen stream was running into the lake and we stopped there to filter enough water for the climb. Per my guide, this might be the last opportunity until a good distance past the summit. Richard loaded up with three liters and I carried two. Like with food, I prioritized light weight over adequate supply. We left the area a bit after 6 am with a five mile and 3,000 foot climb to the peak.

The trail was pretty consistent above Guitar Lake, using switchbacks to climb around 600 feet per mile. However, each step higher also meant a bit less oxygen. At the top there is less than 60% of the oxygen found at sea level. Combined with the cold, once I passed 12,000 feet, I really started feeling it.

The trail surface was pretty good, so that was a plus. It was important to be a bit careful around any wet area as it was frozen. There were a few other hikers in the area. Whenever I met one, I always stopped and chatted. If nothing else, each break allowed me to catch my breath somewhat.

Richard grinding up the slope

Richard grinding up the slope

The day remained clear and, at that altitude, the sun was strong. Things were quickly warming up. By 8:30 I had made it to Mount Whitney Trail. The intersection was about two miles and 1,000 feet from the summit. Many hikers drop their packs at this point as they can be picked back up on the way down and there were several laying by the trail. There were also several marmots hanging around waiting for an opportunity to check the packs for food.

Nice looking pack you have there.

Nice looking pack you have there.

I stuck a small bag of trail mix in my pocket. I made sure what other little food I had left was in the bear canister, pulled the canister out of the pack and left the pack open. Grabbing a half liter of water I started for the top.

Free from the pack, the next half mile felt great, but soon the lack of oxygen began weighing me down again. In addition, the trail got a bit “sketchy” as it climbed through boulder fields and along steep drops. I was walking slower and slower as I went. The last quarter mile was a fairly gentle climb, but even that was difficult. Finally though I made the summit at 10 am. I was at 14,505 feet, the highest spot in the continental United States and the completion point of the John Muir Trail! Now all I had to do was get off the mountain via a ten mile trail that dropped nearly 7,000 feet. Oh, and find a way 13 more miles to the town of Lone Pine. That could wait though. I was taking a few minutes to enjoy the view and my completion of the trail.

View back the way I climbed

View back the way I climbed

There were several hikers on the summit including Evan, who I had hiked with earlier. I was glad to see he had made it despite his shortage of food and diabetes. At that point, he was completely out of food. I told him if we met up once I was back to my pack, he could have any food I had left. Sean and Melanie were also there. Richard made the summit about 20 minutes behind me. Eventually though, since I was no longer climbing, I began to get cold. It was time to start down. I did try to call the Dow Villa in Lone Pine. It was a hotel recommended to me, but I couldn’t get a signal. Oh well.

Trail near the top

Trail near the top

Heading down took considerably less effort and I was soon back at my pack. It appeared undisturbed. Richard’s pack was covered with dusty marmot footprints, but I didn’t notice any damage. Evan showed up right behind me and I gave him an energy bar and a couple instant oatmeal packets. I’d never seen anyone eat that oatmeal dry before, but I guess if you need the glucose, you do what you have to do. Somebody else was there with a box of cookies and we both got a fistful of those. It looked like Evan was set for a while.

Sean and Melanie also showed up at that point. Melanie was in bad shape as her one boot had completely fallen apart. Her feet were a mess and she was looking at walking the next 10 miles in just socks. I had a small roll of duct tape with me and offered it to her. She used the whole roll rebuilding her boot, but it looked like it might hold her for the rest of the day. As a way of thanking me, she mentioned that she and Sean had a car at the trailhead and, if we finished together, I had a ride into town.

With that, they took off at a fast clip, bouncing through the first of 100 downhill switchbacks like pinballs. I looked at Evan and we both yanked on our packs and gave chase.

A couple of the 100 switchbacks

A couple of the 100 switchbacks

The downhill was unrelenting and the pounding took its toll. I was tired but there was no way I was going to miss that ride. The stretch was as steep as any on the trail, and went on for 8 ½ miles. While the downhill was tough, doing that section uphill would have been much more difficult. Hiking the JMT south to north would be a herculean effort. I couldn’t imagine starting my hike by carrying a week’s worth of food up a 6,300 foot climb.

The scenery stayed beautiful the whole way, though I rarely stopped for pictures. Evan and I stuck together and discussed life, including his struggles with Juvenile Diabetes. That he was able to finish his hike was amazing. While the hike seemed endless at the time, we did cover the mileage pretty quick. Less than four hours from leaving the summit of Whitney, we were at Melanie’s car. She took off her boots and started to cry. I looked at her feet and almost got sick. That was one tough young woman. Before we got rolling, I was able to get through to the Dow Villa and rent their last room for the night.

Melanie drove like she hiked so we were in town in no time. First stop was McDonalds for some well-deserved empty calories. From there, Sean and Melanie were heading home to Bakersfield and I was heading across the street to the Dow Villa. Evan needed to make arrangements to meet his parents and gave his Mom a call. It was pretty interesting to hear him excitedly tell his Mom about his hike. It was also gratifying to hear him tell her that a guy named Jim happened along when he was having trouble, gave him some food and “saved the hike.”

The Dow Villa was a great place with a great shower. Of course it was the first shower I’d had in eight days so that may have affected my opinion. Richard called a bit later. Apparently “some bastard” had got the last room at the Dow Villa and he was bunking down the street at the local hostel. I bought him a beer at the Pizza Factory to make up for his bad luck.

In the morning it was a $19 bus ride (a cab would have been $550) back to the entrance of Yosemite. From there, 10 minutes of hitchhiking got me back to my truck. Beyond that, a three day drive and I was home from a tremendous adventure.

A pass a day

I had originally planned on taking a zero day at Vermillion Valley Resort (VVR), but changed my mind. Arrival time that morning was about 10 am having hiked 5 easy miles. That meant I had plenty of time to relax and get ready to head out again. All the usual resupply issues: food, laundry, clean up and high calorie meals were quickly taken care of. Plus, while VVR is nice, there was nothing much to do there. All power was from a generator that shut down at 9:30 pm and restarted at 7 am. There was no TV or phone service at any point, and Internet was $8 an hour. The lake was low enough that there was no water near the docks.

I did take considerable time refilling the bear canister. I did not send any resupply package further down the trail to Muir Trail Ranch and so I would be leaving VVR with approximately 130 miles worth of food. (I figured on eight days.) I could carry my first day’s food separately, but the rest needed to go into the Bearikade. Cramming 7 days of food into the 650 cubic inch canister was not easy. Eventually I made it happen though the odds of running low on calories were pretty good. As it was, I needed to stand on the lid to close it. My pack was going to be heavy.

In the morning, VVR staff took me, James and Thomas to the Bear Creek Cutoff Trail. We could have gone back the way we came in, but the staff recommended the route, saying it was a beautiful hike. It’s actually a bit longer than backtracking would have been and again, I’m not a purist. 

Bear Creek

Bear Creek

The route was definitely a gorgeous hike. The rain over the previous couple days had Bear Creek running strong with photo quality cascades and falls for miles. The climb out of Edison was steady, but not painfully steep. Overheating was not an issue as the sky was partly cloudy and temperature remained brisk. 

With the extra miles, I was thinking of ending the day at Marie Lake. It’s a beautiful spot just short of the Selena pass. Once I stopped walking though, the cold wind just ripped through me. Any spot flat enough for the tent was exposed. It was obviously going to be a cold night and a windswept lake near 11,000 feet was not the place to spend it. I did step off the trail to get some water. When I turned around, there was a coyote walking down the trail maybe 50 feet from me. 

Marie Lake

Marie Lake

Wind was just howling over the pass. I continued past Heart Lake as there was no cover either, finally dropping down to Sallie Keyes Lakes around 10,000 feet. The drop was just enough to get out of the wind, with trees and the high wall of the pass for protection. It might have been the prettiest campsite I’d ever been on, up to that point. 

Sallie Keys Lakes

Sallie Keys Lakes

The weather was clear and very cold overnight. I brought the water filter into my sleeping bag and kept it in my pocket through the morning. There was significant frost build up on the tent fly. I had cold granola for breakfast only because I wasn’t sure the stove would work at that temperature. Got rolling about 7:30 with long a downhill and passed by the Muir Trail Ranch cutoff well before noon. It seemed to have made sense not to resupply there so soon after VVR. 

Kings Canyon National Park was impressive from the beginning. The trail started up a massive gorge right on the edge of a drop to the San Joaquin River. There was a hand written sign warning of wildfires and smoke, suggesting that hikers should turn back. The smoke wasn’t bad, so I pressed on. After a few miles the trail cut over to Evolution Creek, a stream that was dropping straight into the gorge with an impressive waterfall. The trail worked its way up a cliff and though the creek had settled down, I still had to switch to sandals when trail crossed it. This was the one spot on the trail that I had to wade. Once I made it to McClure Meadow, I decided to stop even though it was only 4. Besides still being tired from the previous day’s mileage, the camp spot and views of upcoming mountains and pass were as pretty as they get.

McClure Meadow

McClure Meadow

In the morning I got rolling by about 7 am. The trail soon started the long climb to Muir Pass. Met two guys early on. One was 75 years old and other 76. They had been doing the JMT for 13 straight years. The 76 year old’s trail name was Tin Man because he had two titanium knees. They talked about walking slow, but it was still pretty impressive. Overall the stretch was a hard climb but the views were outstanding. Beautiful lakes sat all along the way. At one point, the breeze had quit, no birds were in the area and there was no water running. Just absolute silence. So rare; for some people they may never know what complete silence is like. Made the pass and only shelter on the trail about 1 pm. The shelter had tremendous views in all directions. There was never a cloud in sky the entire day, just a bit of smoke. The trip down had lakes, streams and the stark beauty of the high mountains all along the route. Ended up camping in Grouse Meadow.

I was starting into a pattern. Climb to a pass in the morning, then head downhill as far as possible to set myself up for the next day’s pass. It was 11 miles to the top of Mather Pass, a climb of 4,000 ft. The last 500 of it were in just a half mile through boulders. Very tough climb. Once at the top, I could see the campsite I had planned on was just in open rubble. Decided to keep walking as the lower I got, the better I felt. Ended up going between 17-18 miles. As I was setting up camp Mike and Tao stopped by looking for a spot, so we shared. They were just doing a portion of the trail, leaving through Kearsarge Pass Trail. They told me rain was forecasted to hit in a few days. I had heard that before and didn’t think much of it. Then they mentioned that rain could mean ice and snow on Whitney and the trail down was “gnarly.” Their reasoning for leaving through Kearsarge Pass was they didn’t want to take a chance on being snowed in between Forester Pass and Mount Whitney. I hadn’t even considered that. Great. As with the smoke issues, I decided to press on.

Got a 7 am start to climb up to Pinchot Pass. After a mile or so downhill the climb began. This one was about 2,000 feet, much better than the last, but my legs were already tired from the big climb the day before. I topped out by 10:30 and the far side looked like a desert. The trail dropped 3,500 feet till the climb started for Glen Pass. Pretty interesting suspension bridge over Woods Creek at the bottom. It seemed like a good place to take a break. Was feeling a bit worn, but knew I should climb a bit to make the next day’s climb a little shorter. 

As I put on my pack, a woman crossed the bridge and started ahead of me. Eventually catching up, I asked the usual questions; when did you start (days after I did), how far you going today (30 miles). It turned out that Jen was an ultra-marathoner and shooting to hike the JMT in 8 days. She had written for Trail Runner Magazine and knew many of the folks in the sport I’d only read about. Talking about the sport energized me and we took turns pacing up the climb towards Glen Pass. By 5:30 we had made it to Rae Lakes, several miles farther than I’d planned for the day. Jen had a snack, put on her headlamp and pushed on to clear Glen Pass 3 miles up trail. She often ran through the night and clearing the pass after dark would be no big deal. I ended up with a 20 mile day and that was plenty for me. Rae Lakes was another incredibly beautiful place to camp. I also took the opportunity to take an extremely fast dip in the lake. If the water had been any colder, I think it would have been solid.

Rae Lakes

Rae Lakes

The day’s hike started out of Rae Lakes about 7. Beautiful sunrise. Walked about 5 minutes and a bear ran across the trail. Slowly walked forward and saw both cub and mom sitting at a campsite by the trail. It looked like they were there for the day. I stood and talked to them for a while before they finally moved on and I could too. 

Fellow campers

Fellow campers

The climb up to Glen Pass had numerous false summits and took till 9:30. Met Evan on the way down. He was about 20, diabetic and running out of food. I gave him a candy bar which seemed to help his situation. He still had a few options in his bear canister and was trying to finish quickly before all his food was gone. Although he wanted me to climb Forester pass with him, I was shot and stopped mid-afternoon about two miles short of the pass. I was shooting for a big hike in the morning to get near Whitney in one more day.

The spot I stopped looked like the last good camping option before the pass. There was a stream and several small tent sites among the few trees growing at 11,000 feet. Apparently I wasn’t the only person thinking that way. Over the next few hours several folks I had previously met on the trail pulled into the area. Richard (Florida), Frick and Frack (brothers from Los Angeles), Mike (Illinois) and a group of four from Northern California set up camp with the tentative plan to summit Mount Whitney in two days.

There were some pretty entertaining conversations that evening as we watched a storm hitting the higher elevations just above us.  Luckily, we stayed dry. Richard and I decided to get an early start in the morning so we’d be over the 13,000 foot Forester Pass before any afternoon storms could build.

 

South from Tuolumne

In the morning I had a quick breakfast at the village coffee shop, turned in my tent-cabin padlock key and drove back to Tuolumne Meadows. Luckily I got the last spot at the Wilderness Permit Office parking lot. After double-checking there were no bear attracting food wrapper left in the truck, I strapped the pack on and was walking by 9. My original schedule had me starting at the Cathedral Lakes trailhead, but the few miles I walked the day before put me farther down the trail. I’d have the choice of a ten mile day or getting ahead of schedule right away. 

The section through the meadows and into Lyell Canyon was fairly flat. It stayed near to the absolutely gorgeous Lyell Fork. The stream was crystal clear and flowing nicely despite the drought. In talking with a few backpackers heading the other way, there would be plenty of water all the way up to Donahue pass, though dry on the back side. The trail stayed flat for 8 miles or so and I made good time and felt good despite the full pack (34 pounds) on my back. 

Deer in a reflecting mood along Lyell Fork

Deer in a reflective mood along Lyell Fork

Once the climb began, I felt it immediately. Over the next two miles the trail climbed from 9,000 to 10,200 feet. The trail was well designed and climbed smoothly with switchbacks, but that didn’t change the fact that I live at an elevation of about 800 feet. 

The sun had been out through the day and the air was dry. At the Upper Lyell Base Camp I drained the last of the 2 liters I’d started with and started filtering some of the Lyell Fork water. Looking up ahead, I could see why the creek was running so well. There was still significant snow on the upper reaches of the mountains up ahead.

As I was bending over and straightening up to get water to filter, I got lightheaded. That settled it. It was only 3 pm, but after 10 miles I was done for the day.

As I scouted for a campsite, two bucks wandered thru the area, oblivious to my presence. All day, it seemed like deer were everywhere and completely unconcerned as I walked the trail near them. I found a great little spot among some pine trees that still had a nice view of the creek and the cliffs on 3 sides. Obviously, it was time for a nap. 

My first camp. The black canister is the Bearikade

My first camp. The black canister is the Bearikade

A couple guys from Bakersfield, CA showed up while I was asleep. One started fishing the small pond and immediately caught a nice brook trout that was to be their dinner. It would be the same dinner they had the night before. I could handle that kind of monotony. 

Per my initial plan, there would be 18 miles to cover the next day. However, after another 1,000 feet climb over 2 miles to clear Donahue Pass, the rest appeared to be downhill or rolling. Hopefully it would be doable.

Climbing toward Donahue Pass

Near Donahue Pass

All my food was in the Bearikade (bear resistant container) set 200 feet or so away. There were a few no food items that I kept in the tent though. I wasn’t worried however. I couldn’t imagine a bear swinging by to eat my hand sanitizer when less than 100 yards away there were two guys awash in the smell of fried trout, trout breath and trout farts. 

After a bear-free night I woke up a little after 6. It took about an hour to eat and break camp. The climb over the pass was significant, but not overly steep. The two miles to the pass were completed in about an hour. This was followed by a long drop through a dry valley until I got below some more mountains with snow melt. So far there was water pretty much everywhere. Even up on Island Pass the trail wove between two ponds. There were some dry ponds, but the streams were running well. 

Got some stupendous views of Thousand Island Lake and snow covered mountains above it. Refilled my water there and followed the trail up and over a ridge. Eventually stated dropping back down and my heart sunk. Was I walking back down to Thousand Island Lake? It sure looked like it. Same mountain in the background and the lake looked similar with some islands. As I walked, I tried to figure how I could have messed up so badly to be somehow walking in circles. As I dropped further down I finally realized that while the mountain was the same, the lake was not. I was at Garnet Lake. 

Thousand Island; or possibly Garnet Lake

Thousand Island; or possibly Garnet Lake

As I was walking I met two thru-hikers. One north-bounder just raved about the experience and the views I would be seeing. A bit later a southbound hiker caught up to me. The first thing Floridia said was he was probably quitting the trail once he reached Muir Trail Ranch. He told me the smoke from wildfires was bad farther south and he didn’t want to walk in it. 

I thought my day was about over when I left Shadow Lake heading for a campsite at Rosalie Lake. The two mile hike to lake was unrelenting switchbacks though. Unfortunately, after that slog all the sites were filled with weekend hikers so it was on to Gladys Lake. I finally arrived there around 6 pm. All the sites were filled there too but Peter from NY offered to share his area. He was a nice guy, about my age and had been hiking the Sierras for 20 years. Though I hadn’t planned on it, he talked me into stopping at Reds Meadow Resort in the morning.

Broke camp around 7:30. After a short climb it was all downhill to Reds. About halfway there, Peter caught up to me so I picked up the pace and walked with him. The trail to Reds can be poorly marked, so Peter guided me in through the Devils Postpile National Monument. The name comes from the pretty interesting volcanic formations.

Post pile

Post pile

We made great time to Reds, arriving about 10:30; just in time for a second breakfast.  And some ice cream. Peter was resupplying there and headed for the laundry/showers. Several other hikers were also there trying to decide whether or not to continue into the worsening smoke. After some more ice cream I headed out into the worst smoky haze of the trip. The hard climb out of Reds was partly through a burn area and the haze made it appear very fresh. 

Apparently it wasn’t all haze though as I began to hear thunder. Keeping up the strong pace from the morning I arrived at my planned destination (Deer Creek) for the day at 3. It seemed a little early to stop, but the next camp spot was another five miles. As I considered options, the rain started. I quickly put up the tent and dove in to ride out the storm. Decision made; hiking was done for the day. Of course it cleared off shortly thereafter. 

With possible thunderstorms in the forecast I saw at Reds, I wanted to get an early start and push hard to get over Silver Pass as early in the day as possible. Camping at over 9,000 feet, it was a cold night however. I put a hat on in the middle of the night to stay warm and brought in my water filter so it wouldn’t freeze. Despite the cold I got up at 6 and was rolling by 7. Smoke was rather thick in the area so there wasn’t much need to stop for pictures. Went into a forced march pace up the first climb, about a 1,000 feet over three miles. The trail bounced around 10,000 foot elevation the rest of the morning passing a couple beautiful lakes. The smoke/cloud cover thickened up, a cold wind began and for the first time of the trip I hiked with my rain jacket on. In late morning, after a big drop down to Fish Creek, I broke for lunch in a pine grove to help block the rain that was starting. By the time I’d finished eating, I needed the pack cover and rain pants too. Passed another hiker that was stopped to dig out her gloves. I knew I’d have to empty my pack or get to mine or I’d have done the same. 

The climb to Silver Pass was about 3 1/2 miles rising from 9,200 to nearly 11,000 ft. The steady cold rain and wind were not the most pleasant conditions. About halfway up the rain luckily quit. Unluckily, it had turned into sleet and snow. The ice pellets were actually preferable to the rain and while the ground began to get covered, it never got deep enough to cause any problems. 

Silver Pass

Silver Pass

Once I thought I was close to the top some hikers came the other way and one told me I was 5 minutes from the top. Enthusiasm renewed, I pressed on. When I hadn’t reached the pass 20 minutes later, I was sorry for the encouragement. Finally topping out, all I wanted at that point was to get to a lower altitude and warm up a little. I kept walking at a brisk pace downhill thru more snow which changed back into rain; finally slowing to a sprinkle. The drop was steep and few spots looked inviting to put up the tent. Once I finally found one I had dropped 2,500 feet from the pass and covered over 20 miles for the day. At around 5:30 pm I set up right next to a big pine that would hopefully protect me from a huge widow maker that threatened the rest of the flat spots in the area.

At that point I was just a few miles from the cutoff trail to Vermillion Valley Resort. I had a room reserved for the next night and a resupply bucket was supposed to be waiting for me as well. Rain continued on and off through the night. I wanted to make the resort’s 8:30 ferry across Lake Edison so I planned to roll at first light, no breakfast. The plan was to get up at 5:30 or so. That was the same time the rain began to fall its hardest. I packed everything I could into the pack while still inside the tent. That worked fine until I had to put the soaking wet tent into the pack. I was glad to be heading to the resort. It would have been rough to try to dry everything out on the trail. The lake is actually a hydroelectric reservoir and was low enough that the walk to the boat included a couple miles on the lake bottom. The boat ride was in a cold, windy rain with two other hikers: James and son Thomas from England. They said they might drop out if the rain doesn’t cleared the smoke.

View from the bottom of Lake Edison

View from the bottom of Lake Edison

We arrived at the resort just in time for an extraordinarily hearty and tasty breakfast. By the time I had showered and done a load of laundry the sun was breaking out. There was a picnic table outside my room that spent the sunny afternoon holding pieces of equipment to dry. With great food, a friendly atmosphere and a cold beer or two, Vermillion Valley Resort was a perfect resupply stop.