Trip Report: First Impressions from the John Muir Trail

A well-signed trail!

A well-signed trail!

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.

A pika gets ready for its close-up

A pika gets ready for its close-up

• 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.

Sunset at North Evolution Lake

Sunset at North Evolution Lake

• 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.

Victory!

Victory!

The last morning view from the Trailstar.

The last morning view from the Trailstar.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll write up more about the trip: more about gear, our splits, and other random ruminations.

JMT: Day Zero

So far, so good. The plane landed on time, and I was able to ship my duffle and other items from the airport. Still not a fan of the bear canister but I’m limiting myself to one complaint each day!

Packing this week was a bit of a blur, and my goal to have a trim and tidy pack quickly went out the window. With some trepidation, I weighed it at the airport – 25 pounds with consumables but without water. I do have my camera gear – two lenses and the mini tripod – so I have some extras in the pack. Still, I’m happy to be in that frame. The weight will shoot up after our John Muir Ranch resupply since we’ll have seven days worth of food.

Gearwise, my biggest debate was whether or not to bring my Versalite (10 degree) or my Hammock Gear quilt (30 degree). The temperatures at night didn’t seem to warrant the Versalite but the quilt is new and untested.

Still, I decided to gamble and go with the quilt. I have camp clothing and the torso pad to add extra warmth if needed. One could argue that the camp clothing is a luxury but I do love being able to put on something warm and dry at the end of the day. It’s worth the extra pound.

20140725-103315-37995817.jpg

My Gossamer Gear Mariposa is handling the gear well, although I do see some fiddling with how I pack around the bear canister over the next few days.

Here’s to the start of the adventure!

Trip Report: Backpacking the Adirondacks (Algonquin, Boundary, Iroquois, Marcy)

Gazing back at Boundary and Algonquin from the top of Iroquois.

Gazing back at Boundary and Algonquin from the top of Iroquois.

The idea was hatched over the winter. Carrie (BootyLess), now in Colorado Springs, was plotting a trip to the East Coast that involved a Fourth of July trek to the Adirondacks. Having been there two years ago, I was itching for a return trip and leapt at the idea of joining her. We were dreaming big: we would attempt the Great Range Traverse.

Those who hike with me know that I’m not best on rocky terrain. With its steep ascents and descents, coupled with rocks to leap down and over and slabs that I don’t quite trust, the Adirondacks are incredibly challenging for me – both mentally and physically. Two years ago, I did the Dix Range with Carrie and limped out the last four miles. Last year, I didn’t go as far north and tried Devils Path, which promptly kicked my derrière. Earlier this year, I went up in January and wound up getting into a car accident during a snowstorm. Let’s just say that upstate NY was winning.

But I was eager for the challenge. We headed up a day before the DC UL crew with the goal of starting the traverse from Rooster Comb on Thursday morning, camping by Basin, and then aiming for the Loj on Friday night. Saturday, we could tackle some nearby peaks, including Algonquin which Carrie has always spoken highly about.

The weather wasn’t quite cooperating with our plans. During the drive up on Wednesday, the sky turned dark and lightning was off in the distance. The emergency alert went out on the radio: a tornado warning in Sullivan County, and a storm with hail moving across the area. Given that we were cruising along the Thruway and had no idea what county we were in, we thought it would be best to stop and make sure we didn’t blow off the side of the road.

The weather was great when we got to Lake Placid Wednesday evening, but we were still keeping an eye on Thursday’s forecast. It was now calling for thunderstorms to hit in the afternoon, which is when we expected to hit Saddleback’s famous cliffs. I wasn’t eager to downclimb them in the rain. We stayed the Wilmington Notch campground on Wednesday night, and slept on our options. Thursday morning, we headed out and made the call to flip our plans and start from Algonquin. Sticking with the Rooster Comb start seemed to position us for having to bail – if there was a storm, it would hit when we were high and we’d wind up heading down to Johns Brooks for the night. At least starting from Algonquin meant that we’d hit the peaks earlier in the day and be heading off the ridge if and when the storms started.

It was a good call for the weather. We had a great climb up Algonquin but bypassed Wright in favor of getting Boundary and Iroquois before the rain. As we headed down the back of Algonquin, the thunder and rain started, and Carrie saw lightning strike across the valley. But I’m slow on rocks, and the rain added to my overly cautious descent. The backside of Algonquin is notorious for being steep. The summit steward on Algonquin felt it was worse than the backside of Dix. I’d still vote for Dix being harder but the descent off Algonquin was a challenge for me.

My legs were feeling it as I reached the bottom, and headed to check out shelter options by Lake Colden. It was still raining as we arrived at the first lean-to. Not feeling particularly motivated to set up our shelters in the rain and enjoying the good (but rainy) view from the lean-to, we asked the occupants if they wouldn’t mind us squeezing in. Fortunately, they were happy to have us join them, and suitably impressed that we got up and over Algonquin with full (UL) packs.

There were a few downpours overnight. Both Carrie and I slept a little later than we would have liked, and hit the trail just after 8 a.m. I was caught up in my own world as we marched along, and Carrie and I both unfortunately realized that we went right past the intersection we were supposed to take – a deviation that added two extra miles. We reversed our route, got on the trail we needed to be on, and then started the journey back up to Marcy.

Our route was a good call for the weather, but a bad call for my legs. I was moving very slowly up the trail towards Marcy, and was getting frustrated with my progress. As we approached Tear in the Clouds Lake, I urged Carrie to go ahead and tackle Gray while I continued to slog towards Marcy. I also opted to cut out Skylight – while we had some sun on the way up, the clouds were starting to move in and cut out any views. (As Carrie said, the top of Gray was grey!) I chugged along the trail.

Now I’ve noted that I’m not particularly great on rocks. While Carrie assured me that the rock was grippy, I wasn’t quite on the same page. Some people hop elegantly up the rocks, but I just get myself up there. (I think it would be a great video series: how to really climb vs Jen’s butt climbing technique. Or a book, as Carrie and I thought: Butt Climbing the Slabs of the Adirondacks. Should I get the Kickstarter campaign started?)

To return to the point of the story, more slabs emerge as you approach Marcy from the back. With one particular slab, I thought I had figured out a way to cling to the side and drag myself up it. I started that route, but then realized I needed to move more toward the other side. I stretched one arm and one leg out, and then promptly found myself pressed against the rock and unable to move. (Yes… that rock is grippy.) I really had no idea how to get myself out of this situation, and heard voices coming up the trail. The last thing I wanted was for strangers to see me like this. In sheer desperation, I decided to gently slide myself down the slab and to the right so I’d crash into the side.

Back at the bottom, I stared at the slab, now my nemesis. I contemplated waiting for Carrie, and then decided I just needed to get up there. I tested her grippy theory and scrambled up on hands and feet. Not very elegant, but I got up there. Victory! I emerged from the trees, however, to see a vast expanse of slab. The plan was to meet Carrie at the top of Marcy but the wind was whipping and the clouds were covering the top. Not seeing another way to get out of the wind, I crouched next to a boulder to wait for Carrie to arrive. Carrie coached me up the grippy slab towards the top of Marcy. (At least, I’m told that was Marcy. With the clouds, I could have been anywhere that involved a field of steep slab.) The visibility was poor – we could just make out the next cairn as we made our way up and over Marcy.

It was already 4 p.m. when we got to the trail junction on the other side. We were supposed to head over Haystack next, but it was getting too late in the day. Plus, the clouds turned around one man who had passed us earlier as he was day-hiking the three highest peaks (Algonquin, Marcy, and Haystack). He arrived at Haystack and thought the visibility was too dicey to progress.

We weighed our options. We could hike further towards Slant Rock or the campsite near Basin. Or we could hike down to the Loj, where Carrie had a reservation based on our original plan of starting at Roostercomb. The temptation of a bed, beer, and potentially bacon for breakfast was overwhelming. Plus, I felt that I needed my A game for the next day, and I was operating at a Z level. Descending to the Loj meant we could day-hike the next day and get something else in. To the Loj, we went.

Saturday was a beautiful day. I gave myself a bit of a rest day – walking with Carrie to Marcy Dam (or what’s left of it), and then returning to relax and read by the lake. Carrie went on to tackle Colden.

Colden in the distance during a selfie break by Marcy Dam

Colden in the distance during a selfie break by Marcy Dam

All in all, it was a good weekend despite my moments of frustration. Going over Algonquin was incredible, and I managed to have some small slab victories. (And a huge thank you to Carrie for coaching me up the rocks and generally being a great support.) While I’m disappointed we didn’t do the Traverse, I’m also pretty happy with what we (I) managed to do. And I’m plotting a return. The Adirondacks make me want to be a better hiker and backpacker.

 

What if…

Planning for the worst case scenario is a second hobby for me. When a friend posed the question of “what would you do if your sleeping pad/water bottle/pack failed” during our prep for last year’s Kungsleden trip, I flung myself into high gear thinking of all the ways something could go wrong.

It was a useful exercise. When we’re out for just a weekend, we can get by. I spent a cold night snuggled on my pack and sitpad when my air mattress refused to stay inflated, but I only had to hike out three miles the next day. When you’re doing a multi-day trip with long miles, it is worth looking at your gear and figuring out what you do if something broke.

Sometimes the fixes are easy. You lose a spoon but can fashion something from a stick so you can eat. You lose a stake but can use a rock to fasten your tent. Your hiking pole breaks but you can use a stick. (Sticks are quite the lifesaver in my scenario….)

But sometimes the fixes require making sure you have a back-up system. For longer trips, I trade out the Sitpad in my Mariposa and add in the Torsopad. It adds just over two ounces to my overall pack weight, but I know that I have a back-up to my air mattress. It won’t be as comfy, but it will get my core off the ground. I use the Sawyer mini to treat water but I always have a small eyedropper of bleach as back-up water treatment. I carry an extra Platypus in case a water bottle breaks. I have Tenacious Tape or duct tape to make gear repairs. I always carry dry camp clothing that is only worn in my shelter.

It is entirely possible to go overboard and develop back-up systems to back-up systems. There is a fine balance in making sure that you won’t get caught in a bad situation without overloading yourself with unnecessary items. But is worth running through scenarios to figure out what you would do or how you would make do.

Five Lessons – Bear Canisters

To help prep for the John Muir Trail, I thought it would be a good idea to practice using my bear canister — the illustrious BV 500 — over my Memorial Day weekend trip to the Foothills Trail in South Carolina.

Lesson 1 – The BV 500 is ginormous.

Lesson 2 – Apparently I eat a lot. I managed to fill it up with five days of food.

Lesson 3 – Packing your dinners at the bottom is a bad idea. But leaving the whiskey at the top is brilliant.

Lesson 4 – At one point, you will consider if it is just easier to fight the bear for the food.

Lesson 5 – It is very nice to not have to worry about hanging your food and just leaving it by the fire.

All in all, it was worth it to have the bear canister. Still trying to figure out how seven days of food — the last seven days at high elevation — will work out. That’s another blog posting…

Conquering Massanutten

Massanutten has been on my list for a while. I didn’t finish it last year, but I was determined to conquer it this year. The loop is 71 miles of ups and downs, and rocky stretches.If you finish it, to paraphrase another backpacker, you’ve really earned those 71 miles.

Image

This year, the weather decided to have some fun with us. We started with sunny skies and ended with snow, wandered through fog, and had periods of rain. The journey started on Thursday afternoon with a nine mile stretch to Little Crease Shelter. Having done this last year in the dark, getting to see the views and sunset from the top of the first ridgeline was a welcome treat. Friday morning, we established the plan – head to Waterfall Mountain and stop. That was about 25 miles for the day. The climb up Waterfall Mountain is an especially grueling one but we were well rewarded for our efforts – not only did we manage to find a nice camping spot, a fellow backpacker decided to  carry 18 beers for the group. Yes. That’s at least 14.5 pounds of delicious beer that he carried for us.

Saturday is where Massanutten made me earn it. I had bailed last year at Edinburg Gap, and I was delighted to pass that mark this year. I was feeling great as I strolled past the gap and started the next climb, but it quickly wore on me. Only six miles left to camp, though, I thought. I can do six miles more. And I did, but they were slow miles in fog and rain. I was happy to see Woodstock Tower, and even happier to see a huge bowl of a vegetable stew handed to me as I sat down at the campsite. I polished that off, headed to the shelter, and then polished off the second half of dinner. With a full belly, I was cozy in my sleeping bag and settled in for the night.

Just 14 or so miles were between us and the end of Massanutten on Sunday. The day started off nicely – another great ridge walk with nice views, and a pleasant stretch (seriously) on the fire road up to Signal Knob. It was snowing lightly as we made that final climb, but then started to come down quickly. Somehow the forecast had turned from 50s and sunny to near-blizzard conditions (okay – a bit of an exaggeration but that’s what it felt like at ~68 miles). I just kept moving – albeit at a snail’s pace, and finally finished the trail.

This is not an easy trail – it’s definitely tested me in a multitude ways – but we had quite an impressive group of backpackers on it this weekend.