It’s been a week since we wrapped up our thru-hike of the John Muir Trail, and – well, to be honest – it is still a bit of a blur to me. Hands down, the trip was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, both physically and mentally. It was an experience.
Two fellow backpackers from my meet-up – DC UL Backpacking – concocted the idea for the hike last fall. My father had just passed away rather unexpectedly and I felt like I was floundering. I wanted to get away and tune out, and even though it would be months away, two weeks on the John Muir Trail was a lifeline that I seized.
This would be my second long distance trail. In 2013, I hiked Sweden’s Kungsleden trail, and I was still working out my gear choices. This year, my gear – for the most part – was a no-brainer: the Gossamer Gear Mariposa as my pack; the MLD Trailstar and bug bivy as my shelter; NeoAir mattress; my Snow Peak stove since we figured alcohol stoves would be banned (and yes, I need a hot cup of coffee each morning); the BV 500 bear canister that I mostly hated but also secretly liked (stickers!); and my Sawyer mini for filtering. The big debate, however, was which sleeping bag to bring. I have a Western Mountaineering Versalite (10 degrees) and a Hammock Gear quilt (~30 degrees thanks to overfill). The WM bag would be overkill in the beginning but perhaps necessary for the colder nights when we got into the higher elevation; the Hammock Gear quilt would be perfect for most nights but was largely untested at cooler temperatures. I decided to gamble and take the quilt; after all, it fit much better in the pack and saved space for the @(#&%! bear canister.
Of course nervousness set in before the trip. I’m an expert at calculating the various ways things could go wrong. We had an ambitious plan to cover the trail in 14 days. (Although I guess, we technically did the trail in 13 and then just hiked out from Trail Camp on the 14th day. I’ll let others argue the finer points.) I was concerned about the impact of elevation on my hiking. Being from the Mid-Atlantic, our mountains top 3,000, maybe 4,000 feet. Now we were proposed to hike an average of 15 miles each day at elevation. I was in Peru years ago, and got sick the first night after hiking when I should have rested. I was in Colorado earlier this year, and got a splitting headache at night in Breckenridge. (The most tragic part: it happened at dinner and I could not finish my fine Colorado steak!) But, as we say in DC UL, what could go wrong?
My goal for the trip was to listen to my body and take it slow. As a plan, it worked well. I didn’t get any headaches, but I was incredibly short of breath on the passes and on most major climbs. This is where it become mind over matter for me as the shortness of breath can make me panic: once on Donahue Pass, I got nervous and found myself hyperventilating, and then did the same again on our way to Muir Pass (this time, with an audience!). I was incredibly slow going up to Whitney, but the approaching clouds and thunder prompted me to lose my pride and hand over my bear canister to a fellow backpacker so I could move at a slightly faster pace up the mountain. (As I said, there is a time to be proud and a time to be practical!)
The trail itself is stunning. Each pass yields grand views of lakes and mountains as far as you can see. My biggest memories (in no particular order):
• Climbing up the Golden Staircase. Not what I pictured, but it was a beautiful stretch. Its tight switchbacks allowed for people to zip back and forth as they climbed up. The rain created mini-waterfalls along the trail. It was far lusher than I thought it would be.
• But then having to climb Mather Pass. I did not like this pass. Even the presence of a photogenic pika did not sway my opinion. It was the pass that would never end.
• Camping at North Evolution Lake. We cut the day short here because of threatening clouds, and I’m glad we did. The sunset was spectacular. It was a memorable night.
• Going over Muir Pass. It was rainy and windy, but escaping into the hut gave a bit of refuge. Of course, leaving it meant you had to emerge back into the storm. I think this was my fastest descent, but it led to another great stretch as we descended alongside a churning river and waterfalls.
• Tackling Glen and Forrester in a day. Hands down, this was the hardest day of hiking I’ve done. Glen Pass is steep and the switchbacks seem to go on forever. Still, the view from the narrow ridge was amazing. We then had Forrester to conquer: a beautiful and mild stretch that is made challenging by its 13,000+ elevation. I got a bit lightheaded on this one. We crossed over the pass just before sunset, and made our way down before dark. It was a clear night but it was a windy one: we had to go at least four miles before we could find a good camping spot.
• Savoring the last day. I took the last day slow (surprise!), enjoying the scenery of Bighorn Plateau and Wallace and Wright Creeks, and then baking slowly in the sunny and exposed stretch to Crabtree Meadow. I enjoyed the climb up to Timberline Lake and Guitar Lake, taking in the views of Whitney. And when I finally got to Trail Crest, I stopped to take pictures and to take it all in. The hike was done.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll write up more about the trip: more about gear, our splits, and other random ruminations.