JMT- Part Four – The Finale!

It’s our last night and we are so close to finishing the JMT! I could not get over the fact that we were literally sleeping 3,000 feet below the summit of Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48, and would be standing on top in just a few hours. My mind was whirling! One moment I was so thrilled to be finishing and the next I was sad to see our JMT adventure coming to a close. Then nervous about making the summit. Then proud that we were really going to accomplish this at all, much less in only 7.5 days. Then overjoyed. Then tired and sore. Then happy. I think I eventually landed on just feeling overwhelmed. Between the altitude (at an elevation of 11,500 feet) and the rollercoaster of emotions, sleep was more of a distant hope on the horizon than a realistic possibility.

We did not have to feign sleep for too long though with a 3am wake up call right around the corner. The alarm went off and from there on out it was go time. Tent down, water purified, Snickers consumed…all in record speed! From here on out it was up and up and then up some more!

Hiking in the dark really changes the dynamic. For whatever reason, I have always liked hiking in the dark. It’s so peaceful and calm. There does not seem to be the same frantic rush or hustle and bustle that can result from hiking in the daylight. The only sign of anyone else on the trail is the glow of headlights above or below you. Just your breath and the star-filled sky keeping you company.  (And boy were there a lot of stars out that night! Amazing!)

We kicked it into high gear right away, only stopping a few times to adjust our layers. Having stared at the maps long enough over the course of the week, I knew that we had 5 miles to gain 3,000 feet before we reached the summit. The middle section of the climb was about a mile of switchbacks in which we gained about 1,000 feet, which is fairly steep. I was not particularly looking forward to this section so you can imagine my surprise when we reached the Trail Crest junction where our JMT route up the backside and the day hike route up the front from Whitney Portal joined. I knew that this junction marked the end of the switchback section and the start of the final 2 miles, but I was still waiting for the tough switchbacks. Confused, I asked Ron, “Wait, I thought we still had to do the switchbacks. Where are they?” When he told me that we were done with them, I was simultaneously thrilled and shocked. While I was busy dreading them, we had already cruised up them. We were making incredible time! (Apparently my nerves the night before were totally without reason.)

I felt absolutely superhuman as we practically jogged up the last 2 miles towards the summit at 14,496 feet. Perhaps it was our joy as we neared the top or maybe it was the balanced breakfast of candy bars that we downed earlier, but we absolutely floated, not at all feeling the effects of the thin air at altitude. It was magical!

We rounded the top only to be greeted by a thick cloud cover. Great view! (Insert heavy sarcasm.) Although we joked around, I was definitely heartily disappointed about the reality of coming all this way and not getting the opportunity to witness our coveted sunrise. But John Muir was not done with us just yet! Within minutes of reaching the summit, the clouds began to lift! Lit from beneath by the rising sun, the clouds were on fire with light! Magnificent does not even begin to describe this sight! The craggy peaks glowing, the distant lakes shimmering, the clouds flaming…it was all so much more than we could have possibly imagined.  There really is no way to explain how I felt standing up there on top of Whitney (we are on a first name basis now) that can truly capture the happiness, awe, and enchantment of the moment. All I know for certain is that we were exactly where we were supposed to be at that moment in time.

After a quick summit dance (captured on video) and officially joining the ranks by signing the summit log, we started the long decent. Emphasis on the LOOOONG! Ten miles of downhill, dropping 6,000 vertical feet, is a lot to ask of the body…especially after over a week of marathon length days. Switchback by switchback we made our way down in the scorching heat towards Whitney Portal where we new we had cheeseburgers waiting with our names written all over them. It’s quite possible that the only thing that kept us moving was the promise of a shower and a full belly in the near future as we continued to make hundreds of switchbacks. (Literally hundreds.) But we did it! We did it! We did it! Immediately upon reaching the trailhead and completing the JMT I started to bawl. Really understanding the magnitude of what we had just done, a whole rush of emotions slapped me right in the face. I was overwhelmed with happiness, pride, painful knees, the heat index, excitement, and overall awe that I simply could not stop sobbing.

Once I finally pulled myself together again and we successfully inhaled our well-deserved cheeseburgers, fries, ice cream cones, and pizza, we spent the night watching trashy reality TV (a rare treat) and sanitizing ourselves via the leaky Mount Whitney Motel shower. Never before have curtains with paint splatters and giant slashes in them, floral sheets, and a rattling air conditioner been welcomed with such open arms. It was glorious!

All in all, our JMT experience was truly priceless. I would not change a single thing. It was perfect in its imperfections and epic in its challenges. It was moving, breathtaking (not just due to the altitude), and spectacular. In a word, it was unforgettable.

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JMT – Part Three – Hightailing it to the base of Whitney

Waking up to a recovered Barbara (read well fed and warm), we enjoyed breakfast as the sun rose over Evolution Valley.   By 9, we found ourselves at the much-anticipated Evolution Lake.  Many people that have done the trail before, have always hyped this place up.  Rightly so.  The glassy lake reflected the high peaks that tower above.   We took a long break here to soak in the first really spectacular view that we had come across since Reds Meadow.

Up and up, we continued towards the top of Muir Pass.   The hiking was, for us, a comfortable grade, and we gained the pass quickly.   This is the first pass that had us above tree line for an extended section of trail.   Atop Muir Pass is an emergency shelter constructed in the 1930s that provides a bit of safety for hikers caught in storms above treeline.   The stout, beehive-shaped hut is an impressive bit of engineering. We luckily enjoyed a bit of sunshine as we ate lunch, but grey clouds soon drew in above us, and we quickly understood the need for this emergency shelter.

Down a descent that seemed to have no end, we hiked until almost 6.  Downhill was quickly becoming harder than the uphill. I’ve always heard this from older hikers wearing knee braces… finally Im understanding their woes.   Is this my invitation to the club?

There was less campsites at Palisade Creek than we were expecting, but we were eventually able to find a site tucked up near the stream junction.  After a delicious dinner of pesto and angel hair, we cleaned up and started brushing our teeth.

BRRRRRRRR!!!!

 I tried to yell with a muffled mouth full of toothpaste, pointing at the small black bear that wandered within 50 feet from where we had been eating our dinner.   He looked at me quizzically as I stumbled to grab my camera, still foaming at the mouth with Crest.   Just as I got the camera up to my eye, he lost interest in Barbara and me, and wandered off to the creek.   We made extra sure to put all of our smellables in the bear cans that night.

The next morning we had a hefty, 4000 foot climb up to the top of Mather Pass.  This eleven mile, sustained climb was a nice warm up for the day.    We soaked in the sun and once again enjoyed lunch on top of the pass.  As we ate, we chatted with a father-son duo that were also thru-hiking the trail.   Rand and Thomas were out from Annapolis, Maryland and looked like they were having a great time. It is so awesome to see families out doing this trail.  Hopefully we can do the same with our kids some day.    Thomas mentioned that they were a bit short on food, so Barbara and I took the opportunity to lighten our load a bit and gave them some of the extra we were carrying.   Thus our decision to finish a day early was solidified.

From the top of Mather, we could almost see the next pass, Pinchot. We boogied down the trail, feeling good and keeping a quick clip.  Our original plan was to stay the night at Lake Majorie, just below the pass.  Upon reaching the lake, we both had plenty of energy, so we inhaled a candy bar each and crushed out the climb up to the top of Pinchot. Two high passes in one day!   On top of Pinchot, we cooked dinner and enjoyed the long rays of sunshine, as the sun began to set below the ridge.  It was if we had a private seat at the nicest table on the top of the world. We continued another three quarters of a mile down the backside of the pass, and scouted a campsite on a high gravel patch at about 11,000 feet. We both were feeling fantastic and fit at the end of the day.

After a restless night of sleep- high altitude does funny things to your sleep cycle- we woke to an awesome sunrise, and a long downhill hike.   This was the first morning that we would start with a sustained downhill instead of a big climb.   While it was an interesting change of pace, we both agree that for us, going uphill to start the morning is much preferred.

We finished our descent at 1140.   Ahead of us we had a 1700 foot, 4.1 mile climb up to Dollar Lake. Typically I lead the climbs and she leads the descents- no reason in particular, other than habit. I was feeling a bit groggy from the lack of sleep, so I asked Barbara to lead this climb.  It is nice to have the person who is feeling freshest in front, as they can ‘pull’.   There is a giant psychological benefit to having someone fresh setting the pace in front, when you are aren’t feeling the greatest.  You don’t have to think about the pace, you just have to keep up.

On this morning, Barbara really pulled- we knocked out the climb in just over an hour and twenty minutes.   We were blowing by everyone else like they were standing still- she had us hiking at 3 miles an hour, on a substantial uphill!  I did my best to hang on, trying not to blow up.   We really earned that lunch.

From Dollar Lake, we crossed Rae Lakes, and began the steep, punchy climb up Glen Pass.  This one took us by surprise.  While not the longest climb on the John Muir Trail, this one made us slow down a bit and really suck some serious wind.   Perhaps it was the lack of sleep, or the pre-lunch throwdown, or that we were climbing in the afternoon, but this pass caught us off guard and was much more difficult than we had anticipated.    At the top, we barely paused- we still had 9 miles and it was already 3:30.

Exhausted and worn out from the steep descent, Barbara and I stopped for dinner at Bubbs Creek.   As we cooked, the clouds that had kept us cool all day, began to let loose some drizzle.   Against Barbara’s will, we packed up our cook kit and began climbing up the valley a bit.   We were rewarded for uphill wet effort, with a beautiful rainbow that brought back out Barbara’s beautiful smile.

 …………

The morning climb up to Forester Pass took us all the way up to 13,200 feet.   The air gets thin up there!   Fortunately, the trail builders who created the JMT did an amazing job keeping the grades reasonable, and as long as you kept putting one foot in front of the other, the pass came fairly easily.  We were on top just after 10.  This was the last big climb before the finish and it felt great to climb it with such ease.

After a quick descent down steep switchbacks, we started the long flat-ish traverse towards the base of Mount Whitney.   Today we had over 23 miles to cover, with over 16 of it coming after Forester Pass. Just a few quick, 7-800 foot climbs stood between us and our campsite at Guitar Lake.     While the hiking was generally easy, mentally this was a tough day for both of us.   We wanted to be at that campsite so bad. As we hiked, we started to make plans for the following day.   After pouring over the maps, and daydreaming about showers and cheeseburgers, we settled on a predawn departure to catch sunrise from the top of the highest peak in the lower 48.

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John Muir Trail – Part 2 – The First Couple Days

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.

John Muir Trail – Part One – The Wind Up

We found ourselves at Whitney Portal, the exit point of the John Muir Trail, with nothing packed but our food.   In Palo Alto, we had stuffed 8 days worth of food into our bear cans. Typically with a trip of this magnitude, we would have been packed weeks ago, but being on the road meant that this wasn’t realistic. So for about two hours on the morning of Sunday the 12th, we took over a couple of parking spots, spreading our gear out, going through mental checklists to be sure that we had everything we would need for the next nine days.  At this point in the trip, packing our backpacks has become almost second nature, and we felt confident we had everything we would need.

The hitch up to Mammoth Lakes went, well, without a hitch.   We stood patiently in the baking sun, thumbs up, and smiles on.   Kind people with cold air conditioners picked us up, and in a matter of no time we found ourselves at the base of Mammoth Ski Resort.   At Mammoth, the rain started to drizzle as we hopped onto the shuttle bus that takes hikers down to Reds Meadow, our starting point for this hike.

We claimed one of the first campsites we saw, as they all looked fairly similar- very large, not at all private patches of dirt.   The drizzle let off for a bit, and Barbara and I found ourselves sitting and thinking about the trip that lay ahead.

As we sat talking, I saw a hiker wander through the campground and up to the registration board.  As he came walking back by, I asked if he wanted to split the camp fee and use some of the extra space we had to pitch his tent.   No need for both of us to pay $20 for a campsite when there was enough space to pitch five or six tents.   As Bob sat down his pack to settle into camp, Barbara and I decided to wander around and see what the area had to offer.

After a short hike we found ourselves at the Devil’s Postpile National Monument.   We stood at the base of the rubble below the tall pillars of basalt, heads a little turned and mouths slightly open in awe…

“Whoa”

“How in the world….”

The leaning towers of rock look as though they have been meticulously sculpted into hexagonal fence posts and then neatly stacked upright next to each other. Below the exposed face is a large pile of broken pillars that have fallen due to the freeze/thaw cycles that every winter brings.  An ancient glacier smoothed off the top of the Post Pile, leaving an exposed honeycomb pattern.  The whole place is just fascinating.

Back at the campsite we found Bob leaning casually against a tree, reading a book and staying out of the drizzle. Over dinner the three of us dove into great conversation that continued late into the night as we enjoyed a bottle of wine next to a small campfire.   Bob turned out to be one of the nicest people we met on the so far on this trip.  We share a similar life philosophy and outlook on travel, and for the first time in my life I think I fully understand the true meaning of kindred spirit.   Hopefully we will cross paths again with Bob sometime down the road.  With a bit of luck, we will be able to live a life as full as adventure and happiness as Bob has.

 

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