Thursday, October 30, 2008

Thank You Mr. Muir!

Fellow designer Suzanne and I managed to score a large chunk of time off from NEMO in the late summer to do some ‘gear-testing’. While prospects of sitting on a beach sipping umbrella-decorated drinks sounded good (sun shades need to be tested too!), we decided that this would be an ever better time to hike the John Muir Trail. Below is a short day-by-day summary of our 19 day trip beginning in Yosemite Valley and terminating 211 miles later at the top of Mt. Whitney.

Day 0: It turned out that Yosemite issues “day of” hiking permits up to a day in advance — a good thing to know! Since no more permits to leave Happy Isles trailhead were available for the day, we found ourselves with some extra time to explore Yosemite and boulder around Camp 4.

Day 1: The next morning we left Happy Isles with heavy packs. The sign at the trailhead noted ‘211 miles to Mt. Whitney’. Strangely, the next sign 4 miles later at the top of the Mist Trail noted ‘218 miles to Mt. Whitney’...

Day 2: The highlight of this day was our camping site on Cathedral Lake. Perched on a smooth granite slab just above the water’s edge, we had the best seats in the house to watch the hour-long sunset. Earlier in the day we had seen a lot of marmot ‘activity’ (aka poop), so Suzanne slept intermittently that night as she dreamed about the furry rodents chewing through her hiking pole straps, backpack, and pretty much everything else.

Day 3: It was a hot day and we couldn’t resist the many swimming holes around Tuolumne Meadows. As we wandered in to our campsite at dusk, we heard some bear-like noises (they sound like regular noises if you were wondering). Suzanne went to investigate the situation and instead found a man washing his feet in a nearby river. He was a former Sierra guide who had never hiked the JMT in the summer but had hiked the whole trail in the winter. He had to cache nearly all his food and arrange for two helicopter supply drops. In the end, it took him over 3 months to thru-hike the JMT. We felt pretty warm and lucky as we settled in for the night.

Day 4: Donahue Pass was a day of firsts: first mountain pass, first sight of snow and glaciers, first king-sized Snickers to celebrate the end of a climb, and first entrance into a new park (Ansel Adams Wilderness). We were passed by Lonn, Elgar, and Mike on the long descent after the pass and camped along a pond with an incredible view of Banner Peak.

Day 5: The day’s hike in and around Thousand Islands Lake, Emerald Lake, Ruby Lake, and Garnet Lake was as beautiful as advertised. We ran into Lonn, Elgar, and Mike again, who snapped our picture before heading onward.

In the hypothermic haze following the bone-chillingly short swim at Garnet Lake, we went briefly off-trail before finding the JMT again.

Day 6: A short hike from the campsite brought us to Devil’s Postpile National Monument which piqued the interest of our nerdy engineering sides. Apparently, it’s not magic; science says the hexagonal columns are caused by the contraction during the cooling process of certain lava types. The most efficient way to release stress is at 120 degree angles, which causes the hexagons to form.

After a resupply stop at Red’s Meadows (Hot spring fed showers! Flush toilets! Double cheeseburgers!), we continue onwards and upwards. Progress is visibly slowed by the first (and only) appearance of spiny gooseberries – deadly on the outside but delicious on the inside.

Day 7: Apparently this section of the JMT is often referred to as the most boring part of the trail. We were not disappointed. Fortunately, we had a stunning Lake Virginia all to ourselves that night.

Day 8: There was a weather scare as the sky blackened in the late afternoon. We managed to make it into camp without any rain falling, but ended up needing to put all our clothes on in order to stay warm with the 20 degree temperature drop. The riverside campsite, which came highly recommended by a couple we had passed going the opposite direction earlier in the day, was a welcome sight as it came fully equipped with a fire ring (our first of the trip).

Day 9: We saw a lot of traffic from folks who had recently picked up food at Vermillion Valley Resort (another possible resupply point). All the stories of hikers getting their first beer free were true! After a swim in a nearby watering hole (see picture below), we headed up to Marie Lakes.

Despite the bitter cold, the lake water was glassy and probably gave us the best reflections of the whole trip.

Day 10: Our final food pickup was at Muir Trail Ranch. Since this is the half way point of the trail, MTR is an extremely popular place to send food buckets (they are carried into the ranch by mules from the post office). They supposedly get over 600 buckets every year from hikers. The ranch puts out extra buckets of food and supplies that hikers leave behind for others to rummage through. We pretty much felt like we had won the lottery at this point on the JMT, as we were the only hikers at the ranch. After carefully sorting through the buckets, we picked up some much needed toilet paper, a 10 inch sausage log, hot chocolate, pasta, dried blueberries, and instant oatmeal (listed in order of importance). Across the river from the ranch, we soaked ourselves in the bubbling hot springs. We could have easily stayed here another week.

Day 11: It’s always hard to motivate after a resupply day. With our packs at their peak weight, we finally started up the endless but gentle climb of Evolution Valley. This day was our introduction to a new regimen of eating as our bear canisters held the same volume of food, but now had to last ten days instead of five. We reached McClure Meadow just in time to set up our tent and sit down to catch the moon rise over the towering Evolution Peaks in a spectacular fashion.

This was followed shortly by an unrivaled sunset aided by the smoke from nearby forest fires that had been burning for several months.

Day 12: Up, up, up to Muir Pass, which was our first peek at the how the hiking goes during the southern half of the trip. While the first half of the JMT wound along rivers, skirted mountains, climbed to alpine lakes, and tunneled into dense forests, it was very clear what would happen every day during the second half of the trip – we would wake up, climb up and over a windy talus pass, and back down into a valley to sleep. Wake up, rinse, and repeat. Muir Pass was especially fun because there was a “bad weather” hut at the top which provided both a warm place to eat a snickers and a entertaining object to climb (that's me on top).

Day 13: We spent the majority of this day in search of the 'abundant' wild blueberries, as described by our guidebook. Unfortunately not many were to be found along the trail and even those were nothing compared to the sweet explosions of wild Maine blueberries. We walked through the stark landscape of a recent forest fire (a few years ago) that was also an avalanche zone. At our camp in the valley we were well below the required 10,000 feet and enjoyed a nice campfire as the sun and temperature dropped.

Day 14: The Golden Staircase was neither gold nor a staircase. It was, however, unrelentingly uphill. Its hard to think of Mather Pass without wanting to shake my fist at it. The talus slopes, sleeting skies, and endless switchbacks were draining; it was the only truly bad weather of the entire trip.

Wearing every piece of our clothing (including socks on our hands) we persevered and found ourselves standing atop the pass (actually crouching behind a rock for wind protection) sharing our king size Snickers of achievement. The hike down into the valley was cake after the agonizing climb.

Day 15: The sound of bells on wandering mules kept us awake for a good bit of the night. It was a bit eerie to hear them nearby, clanging in the dark. When we woke in the morning it started settling in just how little food we had. Our rationed snacks got us up the mountain like dangling carrots. In no time we were up and over Pinchot Pass, which seemed like a breeze in the sunshine even though it was even taller than Mather Pass. We made our way down to Woods Creek which had large campsites equipped with bear boxes, fire rings and a good bit of firewood. All were happy.

Day 16:The further south we hiked, the bigger the passes were. Glenn Pass had by far the most rewarding views to distract us from the steady climb. The Rae Lakes were clear, blue, and reflective – giving us a double view of the towering mountains all around.

On top of the pass, while admiring long and clear views both to the north and south, (and of course eating our king size Snickers) we ran into the couple who had apparently donated our salami log back at Muir Trail Ranch. The day ended on the edge of Vidette Meadow with a perfect view of the impressive East Vidette Mountain across the meadow. It was especially beautiful in the evening light.

Day 17:We’d been hearing warnings of Forrester Pass from the beginning of our trip. For the northbound hikers we had met this first pass may have felt like a beast, but, as it was our last pass, it felt like a stroll in the (very large) park. It was the first time we surfaced above 13,000 ft and you could almost smell the cheeseburgers at Whitney Portal in the air.

Day 18: We had been moving a bit faster than expected, and with an extra day or two to fill before our flight home, we decided to slow down and smell the alpine roses. A relatively short mileage day let us stop, play a few hands of cards, and admire the view from Bighorn Plateau before heading to Crabtree Meadow.

We picked up our Wag Bags just outside the ranger station and crossed our fingers that we wouldn’t have to trek too far with it filled.
"Our non-toxic Poo Powder waste treatment treats up to 32 ounces of liquid and solid waste allowing for multiple use. It turns liquid waste to a solid for hygenic and spillproof transport."
Poo Powder. Nice.

Day 19: The hike from Crabtree Meadow up to the Whitney summit junction was surprisingly devoid of people until we started on the short 2 mile hike to the summit and ran into the crush of day hikers/overnighters making the same trip.

On the windy summit we enjoyed a king-size Snickers (each!) that we had been carrying in our packs for the past two weeks (that’s 7.4 ounces of caramel peanut nougaty goodness that we were hefting around every day).

After a long day, the 100+ switchback descent from Whitney trail junction to Trail Camp was endless.

Day 20: The unfortunate part of a trail ending at the summit of a mountain is that you still need to make your way down to the trail head. We spent the final day descending the last six miles from trail camp back to Whitney Portal. All the excitement about cheeseburgers to come meant that we didn’t even look twice at the blue M&M and red gummy bear that someone had dropped on the ground two miles from the trailhead. Many thanks to Faisal and Farzana who gave us dirty hikers a lift back to L.A. from Lone Pine. And to Joyce in L.A. who let us take hour long showers to start the process of finally getting clean.



lonn johnston said...

Scary feet...congrats ladies on finishing! Lonn

Anonymous said...

Great write up. I walked the JMT in 1997 and found your post.

Edgar said...

Great blog loved reading it and loved the pictures. Congrats!

Brownie and Dizzy said...

The ad in Backpacker caught our attention, particularly putting the Forester Pass sign with the Virginia Lakes campsite...having done Forester twice we know the long and short approaches to it (going both south and north) and the terrain is a lot different than the campsite shown. Nonetheless, it was fun to view your pictures and remember our own JMT trip in 2002. We continued south to New Army Pass instead of doing the Portal.

John said...

We did the trail in 2002 and enjoyed viewing your pictures. We also did an elevation profile, but not as detailed as yours. The Forester sign (in the Backpacker ad) shows Sequoia NP on one side and we all know it says Kings Canyon NP on the other. The ad caught my eye because I know that the pass does not look like the Virginia Lakes area!