December 20, 2010

JMT'ing It: Life on the John Muir Trail

"The Mountains are calling and I must go"
-John Muir. 

The old man’s possessions were strewn about on the alpine floor next to his yellow North Face 4 season tent.  He sifted through the pile of gear; maps, pots, bandanas, tall Nalgene bottles wrapped in duct tape, boots, butane stove canisters, and small Ziploc bags grouping everything from masking tape to marijuana. 

“Here it is,” the man blurted, relieved that he hadn’t misplaced it.

From the Ziploc bag he presented me with 3 orange prescription drug containers stuffed with his fishing tackle and live worms.  The man was quite please that his entire fishing system, including rod, weighed less than 2 lbs.  He had already cooked up 26 pans of fresh trout.  One pan for each day he had been out in this wilderness alone.   I nodded in admiration and willingly egged him on with many questions. 

Every year this man, who insisted I call him Troutbo (like Rambo- I know it’s a stretch), takes the entire month of September off to let his mind and body wander this vast playground.  Troutbo takes his time and savors the surroundings setting up one camp every two nights.  He avoids trails and people by traversing seldom travelled ridgelines and criss-crossing between the countless trout infested lakes.  I was the first person he had seen in 10 days proving that you can have the calming lakes and the snow speckled peaks of the Sierras all to yourself if you just get off the trail.  (Talk of this solitude makes me want to try the Sierra High Route- A unmarked, off trail “Route” which parallels the John Muir Trail.)

Troutbo was the first and last person I saw on my final day before standing triumphant on the summit of Mount Whitney.  It marked the end of my 8 day, solo thru-hike on the John Muir Trail.  What a Journey it was. 

The John Muir trail stretches 222 miles (JMT=211 miles but you have to hike down from the Whitney summit which adds quite a bit of mileage) from Yosemite Valley southbound to Mount Whitney.  Elevations range from 4000 feet to 14,495 feet at the summit of Mt. Whitney with the majority of the hiking at around 9000 feet.  The trail does not cross any roads which make resupplying, if you choose to do it, a logistical challenge.  I chose not to resupply carrying with me 10 days and 25 lbs of food to eliminate this one extra complication in my already halfheartedly planned trip.

Getting myself to the trailhead falls into that category of halfheartedly planned.  It was an adventure in and of itself.  First, I managed to finagle a ride and dinner from Whitney Portal (where I left my truck) to Lee Vining, a 2+ hour drive north, by some exhausted and gracious Mount Whitney day hikers named Carmen and Matt.  Then, as Friday was turning into Saturday, I found myself sitting shotgun in a Ford King Cab, with two climbers sitting in the backseat.  They were also hitchhiking because they ran over a rock which pinched the exhaust shut on their Prius .  They were left stranded a mere 20 miles from the granite spires of Cathedral Rock which they planned to climb in the morning.  Together we listened to the global exploits of an international Geothermal Energy Consultant called Big Bob in the driver’s seat.  I ended up at the Toulomene Meadows at 1:30am where I mooched a campsite with the two climbers, a full day ahead of schedule.

The first two days of the trek, though splendidly beautiful, didn’t feel like the adventure I had hoped for.  Yosemite National park is characterized by waterfalls, huge gray granite domes, and hoards of people.  It seemed too accessible to the weekend warrior just trying to get a quick wilderness fix.  I craved being deep in the wild, hiking over big mountains, and generally working really hard to experience sights that few would be willingly to work for.

After cresting Donahue Pass on day 2, I looked back down the glaciated valley that directed me up the mountain and realized that the trip would take on new character.  Yosemite National Park and its man-altered wilderness with bear lockers, parking lots, and people was behind me and possibly the most beautiful stretch of the entire JMT lay in front of me: The land of one thousand lakes.  With every corner I passed, with every valley I descended, there was yet another speckling high alpine lake with snow capped crags displaying immense vertical relief.  When I see such splendor, my mind wanders back to conversations I have with people I meet on the trail who, on the same magical journey as I, declare there is no God and that religion is a crutch and cripples imagination.   I have to wonder how they believe something so inspiring, so beautiful, just happened by chance.  There must be a creator, a hand behind the paintbrush of nature.  How can one not be moved by it?    

Day 3, the day where I celebrated the first quarter century of my life, was without question the most miserable day of the trip.  My feet screamed with every step.  Sharp pain from inflammation and fatigue preceded the burning pain of raw flesh blistering away between my toes.  I think pain like this is unavoidable when walking 25 miles per day with a heavy pack so I could accept it and deal with it.  The thing that I couldn’t accept was the dang sand.  The trail meandered through the forested valley floor on loose, ankle deep sand.  With every step I sunk in twisting and turning my foot upon impact adding friction and insult to my already blistered toes.  It made me blame anything and everything for my misfortune; my shoes, the scorching sun, the fast pace, incompetent trail builders, John Muir himself, Barrack Obama, and you get the picture.  Of course, nothing would have prevented such discomfort except better preparation.  I muscled through enduring 28 miles before calling it quits on day 3. 

Every day got more enjoyable after emerging from the pit, albeit shallow on day 3.  The pain started to subside, my pack started to lighten, and I found my walking stride.  With less internal stress I could really start to enjoy the hike.  The scenery was now pretty much cliché: High snow capped peaks, lakes, streams flowing from every crack, and turning aspen trees.  The sights created an overall dream of color contrast: Gray granite, white snow, blue water, and red-orange-yellow leaves.

The colorful transformation of aspen was one of the advantages along with less people and fewer bugs to hiking the Sierras in late September/early October.  Leaf peeping, as Arizonans goofily call it, is one thing I took for granted while growing up on the east coast.  I have since learned to treasure it as a resident of the Copper State.  While descending down into the San Joaquin River I was so memorized by the colorful aspens on the mountainside across the valley that I did a double take to confirm that it wasn’t on fire.        
The weather was so perfect the first 5 days that I never wore more than two layers and slept cowboy style.  I never even thought about the elements until day 6 when it got unpleasant.  The temperatures dipped and dark clouds started to fill the blue skies showing me the true character of October in the high country.  So now the weather was all I thought about and the previous 5 days of good fortune were quickly forgotten. 

I arrived into camp that night on Day 6 cold and damp.  I joined two other southbound JMT’ers who signaled me by flashlight to their camp about 150 yards off the trail.  I was fortunate to find them and a flat spot with trees to try setting up my poncho tarp for the first time.  I felt I had to rise to the occasion and impress my peers who had a stable, seemingly indestructible REI brand tent.  Eventually, after they had long since gone to bed, I had a taunt lean-to to retire under for the night. 

That night was silly.  I was on and off with my sleeping because the rain would sporadically wake me from either a mist on my face or a pounding noise from rain drops on my tarp.  Then, as I was dreaming of getting punched in the face, I awoke with a massive nose bleed.  I leaned away from my sleeping pad and let the blood pool onto the dirt.  It was a lot of blood. 

In the morning, my fellow comrades sang praises on my tarp set-up.  They were unaware of my nosebleed.  I carefully covered the dried blood pile with debris so my new friends wouldn’t think I was a nose picker.  I wished them good luck and was on my way.  That’s the way relationships work on the trail.  They’re quick, to the point, and rarely do they extend beyond the trail.

The start of my second to last day on the trail was wet.  In fact, the rest of the trip would be shrouded by precipitation in multiple forms.  My original plan to back off was trumped by the nasty weather.  I pulled the same tarp that sheltered me that night over my head and pack and pressed on.

One ultra light hiker skill that I am slowly picking up on is the idea of using one thing for multiple purposes.  My tarp tripled as a shelter, poncho, and pack cover.  The trekking poles I carried doubled as tent poles (and for fending off trail monsters).  These little tricks helped reduce load on a trip where every pound can make a difference.  However, the bear canister I was required to carry curbed my efforts as it was bulky and weighed several pounds. 

I nestled myself in a grove of pines just below Forrester pass on night 7.  Again, I set up my poncho-tarp for shelter.  I lay down for that night 27 miles from Mount Whitney summit and 38 miles from the warmth and comfort of my truck waiting at the finish line.  I hadn’t planned for it, but night 7 would be my final one on the John Muir trail. 

Day 8 was absolutely epic.  The sky was dark and vociferous.  The air was moist and chilly.  This was the day to climb Whitney.  I could taste it even though it would require 38 miles of grinding to do it.  I knew it would be a long day, but I feared the weather would worsen overnight and thus diminish my chances of making the summit safely the following morning.

I awoke to a fresh canvas of snow on the mountain tops and a childlike excitement to press on through it.  I anxiously restrained myself as a rumbling thunder held me captive for an hour underneath the pines.  I was concerned about being exposed to lightning while ascending up and over 13,200 foot Forrester Pass.  Eventually, the weather let up.  I finally made it to the pass safely and with a fresh set of snowy foot prints behind me.  I rate the view from Forrester Pass as the best on the entire trail.  (Maybe Whitney would be better if it was a clear day?) 

The terrain takes on new character south of Forrester pass.  The country was big and open.  The trail was smooth and fast.  Ironically, as I was getting pounded by rain, this section of the JMT seemed the most dry and barren. 

The miles came easy after Forrester.  Perhaps it was the final day adrenaline kicking in.  Perhaps I was actually coming to into really great hiking shape.  Either way, it was a welcomed break to cover ground fast and comfortably.

The thunder seemed to retire just in time for the final ascent to Mount Whitney.  I felt comfortable summiting although the sky was dark and cloudy.  It was grim but the powerful force of Mother Nature on full display proved oddly beautiful.

I reached the junction of the snow covered Whitney Trail some 2 miles shy of the summit.  At this point, the sun was starting to set and getting darker.  I left my heavy pack at the junction and made an Alpine Style summit bid with my headlight, camera, and water bottle.  I started running up the mountain, all 14000 feet of it, out of pure excitement and the fact that I was freezing cold and the fact that I was running out of daylight and the fact that it was snowing pretty hard and I was afraid my tracks would get covered up making it nearly impossible to find my way back down.         

At 6:33, on October 2nd 2010 I stood triumphant on the Mount Whitney Summit.  It was very anticlimactic.  I could not see a thing because of the snow and the darkness and there was no plaque indicating I had actually reached the summit.  There was a lightning shelter which later confirmed I did in fact make it.

I quickly got off the summit and started a careful but speedy jog back to the junction where I had left my pack.  I gorged myself with a power bar, loaded up the pack and hustled down 6000 feet of vertical and some 4 hours in complete darkness back to Whitney Portal.  I tell you that there is no better sight than seeing your vehicle intact after leaving it for 9 days.

I was aching all over from the 222 miles in 8 days but mainly the last 6000 vertical feet I chose to pound down as quickly as possible.  I joked with some guys at the finish line that I was going to celebrate big time at the bars in downtown Lone Pine California.  I couldn’t even if I wanted to.  At 11 pm on a Saturday night, there was nothing open.  The town was dead.  I had 2 gas station hotdogs and went to sleep in the back of my truck.  The following day I swung down through Death Valley and Badwater Basin just to say in 24 hours I was at the highest and lowest points in the United States.  Badwater concluded a remarkable but sometimes physically miserable trip.        

I knew from experience on previous hikes and running marathons that the memories of beautiful sights, sounds, and childlike freedom would prevail as dominant over pain and fatigue.  So I pressed on.  Up and over 12000 foot passes, withstood chilly nights, endured aches and pains and blisters while ultimately remembering to savor the moment.  I slurped streaming mountain water from cupped hands, I casted my Panther Martin spinner into beaver dammed creeks, I stood waist deep in rushing snowmelt to invigorate my sore legs, I broke through the glass surface on countless lakes with the throw of a stone, I shared my joy with other hikers, I cooked fireside dinners, I ate 3 lbs of peanut m&m’s.  I sang songs aloud as I hopped from rock to rock to cross a rushing stream.  I gazed googly-eyed at a shooting star which seemed to burn an instant too long. I made promises to lead a better life, to change lives, to inspire people only to have those feelings dwindle away upon returning to my real life.  I, if for only an instant, saw my true inner character and passion revealed.  And for that I must thank the JMT.


  1. Thanks for the story. I'd love to do this some day. Maybe if I try to be really, really good, and wish upon a star, the Trail Fairy will bless me. Or else I'll just have to do it the ordinary way. But anyway it's something to daydream about.

  2. Thanks dave. Glad you enjoyed it. All you need is two weeks for the JMT. I figure 15 miles a day for 15 days would have been perfect for me. I went too a bit too fast and may have caused a stress fracture in my leg but still had fun. let me when the trail fairy blesses you and i will be glad to help plan.

  3. Thank you for taking the time to write about your travels. They are amazing and inspirational.

  4. Thanks. Congrats on your USA Championship. Thats very impressive.

  5. Sounds like an UNBELIEVABLE journey... I can't believe how many miles you covered in such a short time..

    I love the "Troutbo" story.. I am picturing a 40-something that looks he is in his mid50s.. grizzled, hard.. and sporting a red bandana.. My hero.

  6. You are pretty much spot on. Except i think he said he was 62 and his bandana was blue not red. in either case, my hero as well.