Tuesday, August 25, 2009

John Muir Trail Overview

The following is transcribed from journal entries written on the trail.
The challenge:
· 223 miles
· 46,000 ft. vertical ascent
· 38,000 ft. vertical descent
· 14 days
· 57 pound pack
· 1-man tent, air pad, down sleeping bag, raincoat, rain pants, 2-pair ex-officio underwear (best purchase ever), 1-pair long underwear, 1-medium long underwear shirt, 1 fleece, 2 pair liner socks, 2 pair socks, 1 short, 1 pant, 1 short sleeve hiking shirt, 1 long sleeve, Full brim hat, glasses, frying pan, stove, 20 oz. fuel bottle, camp soap, sponge, water filter, first aid kit, shovel, t.p., fly rod, fly reel, fly box, camp towel, sun block, bug spray, lip balm, anti-chafe, knife compass, spot device, 2 disposable cameras, 3-pound damn bear canister, 1 sketchbook, 2 pencil, 1 mini water color set, head lamp, storm proof matches, 2 nalgenes, route description.
· 9 Cliff Bar, 9 Power bar, 9 nature valley, 9 kashi bar, 9 snickers, 3 pounds Joe’s homemade delicious jerky, 7 Propack dinners, 2 sets Ramen noodles, 9 freeze-dried apples, 3 ziplock, 1 bag Jolly Rancher, hope for fish
· x2 (food cache with above mentioned items awaiting at Muir Trail Ranch)


Night 1:

We begin our epic journey @ 8:30 pm, sun down, immediately following our 15 hours of driving, from Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley. It is pitch black as soon as we step foot on the mist trail. We’re adjacent to huge, misting waterfalls from glacial runoff. Our goal for the night is 4 miles, 2100 vertical feet. There are a chain of headlamps filing down, the people smell of sunscreen from the daylight before, and they are all limping. The 3-foot granite steps crawling up the glaciated cliffs jar my knees. The only thing I can see through my headlamp is the mist from the waterfall blowing sideways in pure darkness. I can only hear my surroundings. When my heart starts pounding out of my chest and the ground below is too far to see, I think to myself… What the hell am I doing? This is only mile 1.

We pull into ‘backpackers camp’ @ midnight. All spots are taken. We spend the next 30 minutes trying to follow the rules for bear protection, trying not to wake the hundreds of people camped here who cause the need for bear protection.

Day 1: (mile 4 – mile 18)

We have gained 6,000 ft. of elevation in the past 24 hours. Up followed by some Up with a side of Up. We are in thick forest and have no perception of when the concavity of the hills will top-out. I drink orange powder and it makes me keep going up. Today we have met our quota of 14 miles and started off strong, despite our current limping and groans. We camp at Cathedral Lakes – The water is warm like a hot tub. The temperature doesn't quite fit the glacial surroundings, and lacks the same healing powers of a crispy cold body of water. This is one of the more cozy spots in Yosemite, compared to the nearby Sunrise camp which is stocked with propane, camp tables, permanent tents with windows - all horsed in by popular demand.

Day 2: (mile 18- mile 33)

We drop continuously from Cathedral Lakes to Toulamne Meadows. We see cars at 3.5 miles – It makes it hard to focus on the journey at hand when you see civilization 10% into your trek, But we embrace it’s resources and top off with Joe and Eric’s staple, cheeseburger combo and double cheeseburger combo, respectively. Then we get the hell out of Dodge. We follow a wide stream continuously up a gorgeous meadow for the next 10-12 miles.

A guide and two rich clients on horses yell out some rules of yielding to horses on the trail. After yelling back a smart ass comment, The guide flipped his horse around so I am eye to eye with his horse and says in his thick western rancher accent, “I’ll take this horse right over the top of you, I’ve done it before.” As I feel around in my pocket for my knife, I realize that a 3” blade won't reach an artery on this massive beast, let alone reach the ranchers leg. Besides, my first rule of combat is – Don’t ever fight a cowboy. Conflict avoided. We walked away. We now lay by the river and cool off. While Riedner fishes redneck style (no casting involved) I cut my hair with the 1" scissors on a micra-leatherman - I am told I look like a gnarled squirrel., but it helped my head vent better.
Time perception: 1hour on trail = 1 day at office
Distance perception: 1 mile hiking = 50 miles driving (based on sensory experience)
We camp at the head of Lyell fork, big, meandering, beautiful. The meadow is a breeding ground for bears and bugs. We set up at dusk. We get up to fish and out from the forest runs 30 loose horses, charging for their freedom, equipped with cowbells. They roll around and play happy to not be carrying propane tanks up to one of Yosemite’s camps. I could finally sense the true identity of a horse, as a playful wandering creature, compared to the utlilitarian engines that we have come to now. The fishing is a great release. We cook 50 feet from the tents, and 30 seconds later a massive black bear is sniffing our gear. We scare it away with pots and rocks. Every noise we hear this night, we think is a bear trying to hump the tent.

Day 3: (mile 33- mile 45)

A pack of horses swarms our camp. The alpha male sticks his snout in my bear bucket for food. He doesn’t respond to the yells like the bear. He leaves on his own terms. We immediately climb Donahue Pass up to 11056 ft. The trail is really picking up in beauty, and intensity of terrain. From the pass we can see down the path we will take for the next 12 days. On the south side of Donahue pass, we hiked by some idyllic pools, perfect napping stations that tempted us to stay, but this trip we are walking machines. But to end the day after soreness and hunger has eaten into our motivation. We decided that the following days will include a mandatory 2-hour swim/fish/cleaning of the clothes in the sun. (Take advantage of a good spot now, not wait and hope for one later). We end today at Garnett Lake. The wind howls, the trees are all bent and the rocks are sharp. Some weird couple from California decides to camp 15 feet from the spot I chose – Very confusing - they must be lonely and more social than I would choose to be out here.

So far this trip is an emotional roller coaster: 3 miles of joy followed by 3 miles of fear and worry, 3 miles of health followed by 3 miles of pain, 3 miles of glad to be in the middle of nowhere followed by 3 miles of wanting to be nearer to what I know.

Day 4: (mile 45- mile 60)

Life is beyond what anybody has ever told you it is.

We have seen the big, the dramatic, now we see the subtle, with smelly good trees and sandy lakes. We pass through so many different types of terrain that it’s impossible to keep track of where you have been all day. I only had one goal in mind for today: Find a lake or stream and wash all my clothes. My smell is awful, and has become a route description for the other hikers passing by. They must think we lost our jobs in the recession and are hiking to the next state in hopes of affording soap. We find a great spot near Red Meadows, above a waterfall to bathe and wash clothes. Right when I am stripped down to my undies, scrubbing myself thoroughly around my privates, a young family stops and picnics 10 feet from us. Is California becoming like China, where there are so many people that they are forced to be comfortable next to each other. After a 1.5 hour break, we hike into Red Meadows, drop off some garbage, fill up with water, quickly look at the Devil’s Postpile (basalt columns) and begin the last 5 miles. It’s a grunt, the forest is burnt, the ground is chewed up sand, and we are more than tired. We end here at Crater Meadows. Tomorrow should be interesting – there was a severe storm warning posted on the Red Meadows Ranger Station that warned of snow, rain, and lightning above 9,000 feet. John Muir Trail hikers were advised to stay put until the storm passes in 2 days. Since we are carrying 20 more pounds than all the other through-hikers, including extra gear, specifically extra gear for inclement weather, we decided to push on through into the storm and get ahead rather than behind.

I enter a dark place in my mind each day I am here. The distance on the body is daunting.

Day 5: (mile 60- mile 74.5)

Riedner goes to burry yet another of his food items. This time dried fruits, before it was 8 of his 10 pounds of nuts, in addition to his 2 pounds of cheese raviolis, in addition to 12 organic tortillas (the 2 latter went bad at day 2.) Chemicals prevail on this one.

It is damn cold today! We are hiking in fleeces and can’t stop but more than 2 minutes without shivering – meaning we’re hiking as fast as we can to keep warm. The first half of the day, clouds were everywhere, dancing on top of one another, but too light to contain any moisture. As we reached 10,400 ft we were lightly snowed on, but not enough to cause any additional wetness. The trail became really beautiful at purple lake and beyond. Virginia lake was spectacular, but cold and windy as hell. We made our way down to 9,00 ft to Tully Hole – a small meandering river awaits us fishing all afternoon. This is the first day we have some time to enjoy our campsite. We were so concerned about being caught in the storm we flew 15 miles in 8 hours, arriving here at 3:30pm.

I am discovering that the human body can go about 12 miles with a heavy pack with some to mediocre problems. But we are pushing an average of 15 miles per day. The last miles are pounding pain and delusional moments. We are now 1/3 of the way and my feet look like mushrooms. Riedner reminds us that this is “the trip that will define this decade of your life.”

Day 6: (mile 74.5 – mile 93.2)

We awake @ 5:45am to find ourselves covered in a layer of frost. It has coated our tents, our sleeping bags, our bear canisters, our clothes. My underwear from the clothesline could act as a dinner tray. Our water bottles are solid. Getting ready is slow going. This is our biggest day yet. Total we climb 4,000 ft. and total we drop 4,000 ft. Silver pass is beautiful – The drainage to the south makes for really pleasant hiking. We stop to dip into its freezing water as a stream curves and ponds over solid bedrock. The last leg of the hiked was horrendous- 4.6 miles up 2100 ft., no scenery. We are now at our destination, solely because there is water here – 12 hours later. New blisters are arriving daily – I now have 13 toes. I manage them every break, but am running out of supplies. We will near the Muir Trail Ranch tomorrow for our re-supply. Note: Bear ridge is the worst 7-mile hike ever.

Day 7: (mile 93.2 – mile 108.1)

We slept in until 8am today because of our big day yesterday. The river (bear creek) that we camped near is a lot prettier during the daylight. We couldn’t see it when we rolled in last night in the dark. I casted a few times before breakfast, and then we fished along the river for the first 3 miles of our hike. We took a swim in the Marie lake, jus shy of Selden pass. It was cold, but refreshing. I covered myself in camp suds and went at it, yelping like a dog being turned into a popsicle.

The south side of Selden pass is beautiful. There looks to be great camping near Sally Keyes lake, but we can’t take advantage because our mileage quota rings, ‘go go go’, not ‘stay and have a relaxing outdoor adventure.’ After dropping 3,000 ft. down the pass we finally arrive at Muir Trail Ranch. We set up an awesome campsite near the San Joaquin River, near the other 100 through-hikers awaiting food caches. We will add a full load of weight with new gear and new food tomorrow morning.

Day 8: (mile 108 – mile 120.5)

At our halfway mark I can now start counting down in instead of counting up. The entire gauging process has involved increments of increments. For example, ‘in 2 miles you will have gone 1/3 of the day’s distance, and by that point you will have been ¼ of the entire distance.’

This morning we added 15 pounds of food to our packs and our feet don’t like it. The food cache operation at the Muir Trail Ranch was slow – 2 hours slow. Their internet access was down, so they had to go about business analogue - As ranchers you wouldn’t think this would hinder them.

We hiked into Kings Canyon National Park, up the San Joaquin River. It’s big, loud, and beautiful. Then we made our way up to Evolution Valley, where we took a swim in a cascading pool with a bedrock bottom. We set up camp at an elevated perch above a meandering stretch of the evolution creek. Today we logged our least amount of mileage - I blame it on the absence of homemade jerky. What is this Oberto crap?

Day 9: (mile 120.5 – mile 139.5)

We got an early start today and immediately climbed up to Evolution Lakes – Absolutely magnificent as the morning light hit all the rocks, plants, and water. There must be 15 groups of JMT hikers camped here. They were all eating breakfast as we passed. We kept climbing until we reached Muir Pass 11,900 ft. The distance traveled was deceiving because you could see the next 5 miles you were to hike, but it took forever to get there. The downhill after the pass just crushed us – we must have held a pace of ½ mph. Our map reading skills even deceived as we placed ourselves 4 miles ahead of our acutal location - we couldn't believe how slow we had become, like our legs had been replaced with obelisks.

This eventually led into LeCont Canyon (spelling?) – Big, glaciated canyon where our final destination, palisades creek, drains into. We set up our tents again in the dark, and have completed a total of 20 miles today. Some Irish ranger saw us 4 miles from our destination and said, “you boys look tired, from the look on your faces, you’re not going to make it [to palisades creek]”. Dumbass - We made it.

Day 10: (mile 139.5 – mile 155)

We knew we had a big climb on the menu today. I remember seeing this on the profile day 3. It’s 4,000 ft. straight up for 10 miles to Mather Pass 12,100 ft. We did it with a short swim between in Palisades Lake. There was an old man on the trail with a external frame pack 24” above his head, fully clothed in dark jeans and flannel. He would walk 20 feet and sit down, walk 20 feet and sit down. I hope he made it to where he was going. It looked like this was his last goal, to summit Mather pass and he didn't even bother to tell his old lady where he was off to. We have also notice old ladies hiking solo on this trail, we pass them every day, buty they seem to keep making the distance. Slow and steady wins the race.You start getting delusional and dizzy at this height and the trail is made solely of jagged rocks. Every once and a while up here there is an underground stream or baby blue lake. Then you make it down to where grasses start to grow, then the shrubs, then the conifers, then the aspens, then the wide rivers, then you know you gotta go back up. Overall today was a good day. We are camped near the Taboose pass trail and finally made it in with some light to spare.

Day 11: (mile 155 – mile 173)

My extension-of-a-toe blister has popped. It now looks like a deflated bean bag around my entire toe. I scrubbed it in the river with camp suds, squeezed out all excess fluid, filled it back up with antiseptic wipe via suction, squeezed out excess antiseptic, applied dab of Neosporin on band aid to act as gasket to prevent influx in and around the bean bag hole.

We climbed Pinchot pass quickly, then hobbled on down the back side – These 3500 ft. of descent are like trying to cut down a 48" diameter tree with only your knee and ankle bones. We were slower than molasses, and a dip in the river was necessary. I lay on a log suspended above whitewater rapids to air dry, which quickly reversed my entire mental state into the ups. This again proves that any form of cold fresh water cures anything you have. We started the climb of another pass, but after 18 miles, we decided to call it a day and camp at Rae Lakes. It is beautiful here and seems to be popular based on all the little headlights across the lake.

We are planning our exit. We must average 17-18 miles per day over these huge passes in the next few days. We have been pushing ourselves from the beginning, might as well make it a full beating.

Day 12: (mile 173 – mile 190)

We pushed hard today! Woke up @ 5:00am, were on the trail by 6:15am. From Rae lakes we immediately climbed Glen Pass, descended 3,400 ft. and started the mega climb – Forester Pass 13,200 ft. Of course we needed a swim and laundry session in the river beforehand. This ascent was fairly easy – just long. The trail was in great shape. A group of 20 or so from the Conservation Core was heading down for the night. They were building new trails with dynamite, pry bars, pick axes and winches. They were the dirtiest bunch i have ever seen, like railroad workers from the nineteenth century, but they had a look of satisfaction and pride in their eyes like this is what God had sent them here for. They were true mountain men, and women.

We both became extremely dizzy when approaching the top. I learned that trying to eat a jolly rancher while hiking up switchbacks at high elevations, sucking wind is really just a choking hazard. I now only eat jolly ranchers on the down slopes. This pass felt like being on top of the world, where your only surroundings are massive rocks shooting out of the earth. After our descent from Forester pass, we both lie down in sponge-like moss near a small stream, with 12” of travel , this makes the most comfortable bed of all time. An attractive woman also descending jumps into a frozen lake nearby, then dances around the rocks in her underwear while her boyfriend watched in embarrassment. She then proceeded to strap into her huge backpack, again only in her underwear, and made sure to walk off the trail in between me and Riedner’s napping position. Either high elevation does funny things to your brain, or we’re just that handsome. I felt sorry for her boyfriend.

Day 13: (mile 190 – mile 205.7)

We found new energy today, knowing the end is near. We averaged 4 mph for about 6 miles, then had to pump water, and lost our speed. - so we went fishing for 15 minutes. Our goal was guitar lake, the base camp for hiking Whitney. We sit now below this beast shooting out of the ground, awaiting the morning to tackle it with full force. We have the entire afternoon to lounge here, fish, and swim along with the small town of other hikers awaiting the same destination.

The view and the time here is beautiful. It is our first rest in 13 days. Why are we pushing so hard to get out of here? Ever free moment we have is filled with ideas of moving farther and faster– just for the challenge. Maybe its that German heritage, or just the desire to be able to smell yourself without gagging.

Day 14: (mile 205.7 – mile 223)

Your taste buds are more sensitive @ 14,500 ft. Everything tastes really good up here – more salty, more sweet, more sour, more bitter.

We awoke at 4:00am in below freezing temperatures from guitar lake, and arrived at the top of Whitney at 8:30am. I am Euphoric, this is the most enjoyable hike of the entire trip, it is easy compared to the rest. This is the end of the official John muir Trail. We now hike down 7,000 ft. of switchbacks to Whitney Portal, to a white truck, to some cheeseburgers and a beer. We have completed the 223 miles in 14 days.

Concluding Thoughts

Aged..... or reverse-aged by nature

This was an unforgettable trip, not necessarily enjoyable, but unforgettable. It was a 336 hour long emotional and physical challenge for which we couldn’t back out – only move forward. We didn’t necessarily want to eat dehydrated food ever day, dig a hole for a bathroom, apply first aid to our feet every stop… we had to. We had to deal with whatever came our way. It was like living as an animal, except for the toilet paper, the stove, the fuel, the first aid, the water filter, the tent…..… well, it’s as close to an animal as I will ever be.

I don’t think I will do another trip quite like this one. It is like you can see the fish, but you don’t get to catch them, but you’re carrying the gear to do so. I have discovered that the wilderness is not a highway to be traveled through at high speeds. The wilderness is a rest stop to pause and take a break from the highway which is our lives.

I have also learned that when something seems wrong, or I assume it will get worse – It will get better within 2 days.

List of temporary ailments:

· Cold sore on lips

· Scabs throughout nostrils

· Fingernails all pulled away from swollen fingers

· Blisters the size of additional toes on feet

· Achilles tendon strained

· Sunburned eyes

· Taste buds desensitized (except for elevation 14,500 ft.)

· General joint aches

· General digestive problems

Total weight loss: 13 pounds