And we’re off! We bid farewell to our new friend, Bob, with high hopes of staying in touch, and hit the dusty trail up and out of Red’s Meadow. The nerves were high, but were trumped by our excitement to get started. Last November there was a crazy windstorm in the Red’s Meadow area with winds between 100-180mph that ravaged the surrounding forest trees, snapping hundreds upon hundreds of age-old giants like they were twigs. With that in mind, we were not so sure what condition the trail was going to be in so we breathed a big sigh of relief upon seeing that their crews had been hard at work and had reinstated an obstacle-free trail. Not having to climb over massive downed trees right out of the gate and instead being able to walk unencumbered was definitely the preferred method.
As we gawked at the twisted tree trunks left standing beside their grounded counterparts, we realized that we were simultaneously making great time despite our heavier than normal packs. (Carrying nine days of food in each our bear cans definitely up-ed the weight factor…something we don’t usually have to deal with being backpackers of the lightweight variety.) Despite the sporadic sprinkles, we were feeling pretty energized and blew past our original Day 1 destination and found ourselves at Cascade Valley for the night. (Whether this energy resulted from Snickers bars, the adrenaline rush of finally getting our feet on the JMT again, or simply physical fitness from a summer spent hiking, the world may never know. Although we are banking on the Snickers.)
Over a delicious feast (which could have been just about anything at that point thanks to the hunger induced by massive calorie burning all day) we started looking at the next day’s mileage. Our minds started reeling pretty quickly when we realized that we had far overshot our first goal…that’s when our real crazy kicked in. The more we crunched the numbers the more we were convinced that we could do the trail faster. In a very short time span, our plan went from finishing in 9 days to finishing in 8 days…and then 7.5 days. So how exactly do you make up more than 20 miles in less than 7 days? Not easily, but we were pumped and ready for the challenge!
Sights set on another 20+ mile day, we set out to meet our new 7.5 day goal. The morning was fantastic as we skipped up and over Silver Pass. Lunch next to a little babbling creek geared us up for the afternoon…however Mother Nature had other plans for us. It started to lightly sprinkle as we packed up after lunch. No big deal. We just threw on our rain jackets, deciding to skip on the rain pants judging from the previous day’s not-so-wet weather and the JMT’s general reputation for being a no-raingear-required trip.
Pretty much as soon as we made the assumption that the rain would treat us kindly again, the skies opened up and dumped buckets…for hours. An afternoon of hiking accompanied by thunderclaps and a very cold rain made for some very long, trying miles. Sopping wet, violently shivering, and a few miles short of our goal for the day we decided to call it quits. Enough was enough. Ron was the hero of the day as he set up the tent, cooked dinner, and essentially dressed me in dry clothes and cocooned me in the sleeping bag to warm up. (My seizure-like shivers made me less than helpful with pretty much everything.) Needless to say, it was not our finest moment as we questioned why in the world we had signed ourselves up for this. (Apparently I was not quite as hardcore as I had convinced myself I was.) Bed by 6:45pm was really the only option…and it could not have come soon enough at that point.
Things often look better in the morning and this was no exception. After a wet night, we woke up to blue skies. Although the air had a slight chill to it, we were overjoyed just to be dry. (Well, in all honesty it took me a little while to let go of my grudge against the weather from the day before…but not too long.) Fresh legs and a revitalized attitude helped us crush out some serious miles. We had a bit of making up to do from yesterday’s “raincheck”. (Pun intended people!) We were up and over Sheldon Pass in no time. It was so refreshing to finally get above treeline! Now this is where the real JMT experience starts in my mind. Imposing mountains, pristine alpine lakes, cascading waterfalls, lush valleys…finally we were getting to the good stuff!
By mid-afternoon we had officially entered the Kings Canyon National Park boundary. It was amazing how the landscape seemed to change suddenly. We were hiking through a fairytale land of vibrant red trunk trees and leafy green foliage framed by powerful streams and big granite boulders. Gorgeous! With one final climb left for the day we powered up with a couple of Sour Patch Kids (or as we like to refer to them as: energy pills) and knocked it out of the park.
Just one creek crossing and 2.5 miles until we made it to camp and successfully made up for our short day before. Easy, right? Again, I was reminded not to make assumptions out here. Just as I thought we had this in the bag I totally bonked. I just plain ran out of steam and needed calories. It’s crazy how fast you can go from cooking along to feeling totally cooked. Camp seemed impossibly far away, but yet again it was Ron to the rescue as he pulled us along to camp in McClure Meadows. An amazing pot of mac and cheese with bacon bits raised my spirits as we began to mentally prepare for the next couple of days. (Amazing is a relative term however. When we consider what it actually looked like, this meal may have come across as repulsive in normal circumstances…Maybe. I’m still not convinced though.)
The first couple of days on the JMT struck a lot of different emotions. It really started to sink in that this was going to be a challenge, especially at the grueling pace we had set for ourselves. In my opinion though, you need those lows to really and truly appreciate the highs. It’s the journey as a whole, with all of the physical, emotional, and mental trials and victories that make the JMT such an epic trail. In retrospect, it is the challenges that make an experience memorable.