Day 5: The Forester Pass Half Marathon

July 21st, 2018; Tyndall Creek – Bubb’s Creek Junction: 13.3 miles

Any guesses as to where I currently am?? 3…2…1… if you guessed camped out inside the tent waiting out another monsoon, consider yourself correct! Ugh. This is getting annoying. At least the thunder isn’t nearly as bad as yesterday!

Today started early. I was anxious to cross the river creek and meet with the pack mule. So I packed up my wet gear and set out a little before the girls. I knew the first 5.2 miles were all uphill, so I wanted to get a head start. Within the first mile, I crossed the stream. Though narrow, it was extremely deep. I crossed in water shoes and used my poles to steady myself. Nothing like thigh high freezing cold mountain water to wake you up at 6:30am!

And what a beautiful morning it was. The meadow was stunning and got my mind off the gentle grade climb. I passed a group tour led by a young guy who was telling the group that this time last year the whole meadow was covered in snow. Thankful that isn’t the case now. One of the women in the group called me the girl who looks like Heidi (I’m assuming because of my braided pigtails), I’m glad that name didn’t stick! I slowly but surely made it past alpine lakes, waterfalls, and countless marmots. I lost count after 5 – I wasn’t really into keeping count of potentially cannibalistic rodents.

Then, from around the corner, I spied it. Forester Pass. What everyone describes to be the second hardest climb, the first being Whitney. And I already climbed Whitney, so Forester should be a piece of cake! Except it looked way intense. I recognized it from pictures. They made it look gnarly (I’m picking up local vernacular) and treacherous, but in person it looked way worse. It looked like I was about to embark on a journey to throw the one ring to rule them all into the fires of Mordor. How the heck was I supposed to get up that thing?! I couldn’t imagine how anyone could make a trail up such a steep mountain. Thank goodness a couple was camped right before the switchbacks so I could ask them. They pointed me in the right direction. The also told me how they got stuck in yesterday’s thunderstorm going over the pass. They were terrified but made it thankfully.

And so I was on my way up. I passed by a marker indicating the death of a young man who was working on building the trail. I stopped for a minute just thinking of the magnitude of what that marker represented.

Switchback after switchback fatigued me, but I had music playing to keep me going. A few of the sections were narrow with sheer drop offs that were dizzying and quite unsettling. Caution was taken with every step. Then suddenly, by surprise, I found myself at the top! It was quite crowded with other celebratory hikers but I was too distracted to really notice them. The views. I was in shock. Facing north, I can’t even describe the beauty of what I was looking at. Nor do I want to – it’s something that has to be experienced in person. I was completely awe struck.

Soon Mary Beth and Sam joined me, along with the guided tour. “Okay guys, we got 3 minutes up here then we gotta go. We have to get to below tree line as soon as possible!” we overheard the guide barking. We looked up and saw why – dark doomy clouds were crashing the Forester party. Since it sounded like he knew what he was talking about, we decided to follow suit. We snapped a few pictures and off we went.

Hikers typically hike the JMT from North to South. So naturally, I was going against the current. The views going North down from Forester Pass makes going the “wrong” direction worth it. I was in Heaven. Cause surely, this is what my Heaven looks like. The 3 miles down into the tree line were phenomenal. I feel bad for SOBO hikers who not only have to go up the pass (they had it way worse than us) but because they don’t have that view in their face the whole time to distract them.

Still super paranoid about missing the pack mule, I jumped again of Mary Beth and Sam. I basically ran to where I believed the meeting spot was. I arrived before I knew it at 2pm. I was told “anytime in the late afternoon”, so I knew it could be a while. So I just sat and was left dwindling my thumbs, cause I had already chewed down my nails in a nervous frenzy. The dark clouds followed me, making me nervous that I’d be waiting in the rain. Soon I heard thunder… but I also heard the clomping of hooves. I looked up and saw a beautiful sight. I saw a cowboy with a fully loaded mule! A mule fully loaded with our resupply!! What a relief that it had all worked out! If anyone is embarking on the JMT and wants a reliable pack service, look into Cedar Grove Pack Station. They’re easy to communicate with, reliable, and even bring in fresh fruits and vegetables for you! When I told him (he looked EXACTLY like Mitchell from Modern Family) I wasn’t sure if he’d make the delivery in bad weather, he retorted, “no ma’am, we’re like the USPS. We delivery rain, snow, or shine. ”

Because where we met didn’t have water or a bear box, we back tracked 1/4 mile to a campground that did. Along the way we ran into the girls and we all went back together. Just in time too. As he was emptying the panniers, it started to rain. We gathered up our goodies and quickly set up camp. Today’s storm wasn’t nearly as bad, I evaded any tent flooding.

I have entirely too much food. I haven’t been eating nearly as much as I thought I would (I eat way more in my real life than I do in Trail life!). So I’m leaving a lot of food in the bear box, free to a good home! I’m sure a hungry hiker will find it useful.

Sam’s knee isn’t getting any better. We considered making tomorrow a zero day, but logistically that would make the next 6 days pretty tough mileage wise to make sure we’re good with food and resupply. We’re going to carry on and if her knee isn’t better in the morning, she’s going to exit via Kearsarge Pass. Really hope it doesn’t come to that.

Considering I did 13.3 miles and made it to 13.5K’ and felt fine, I think I have my trail legs and I’m finally acclimated! Now if just these storms would give it a rest!!

Day 4: Monsoon Season in the Sierras

July 20th, 2018; Crabtree Meadows – Tyndall Creek: 8.3 miles

Monsoon moisture is no joke. Lightning just struck pretty much right outside my tent. So glad I have this nylon fabric to protect me! The thunder is pretty magnificent, but it’s hitting a little too close to home. If this journal post comes to a screeching end, at least you’ll know why!

So as you already surmised, I’m tucked away safe and sound – emphasis on sound, this thunder is deafening – in my tent. I’m actually kind of terrified, but all this writing is a good distraction! I honestly should be grateful for this experience, right? Not many people get to experience a monsoon in the Sierras!

So anyways, how did I find myself in this less than ideal situation? Well, we walked right into it! Unbeknownst to us, of course. We can’t get weather reports out here in the wilderness!

Fresh off the high of summiting Whitney, I was bright eyes and bushy tailed going into today’s journey. Skies were blue, sun was shining, and the temperature was perfect for a hike on the John Muir Trail. I felt good, hills didn’t look so big, and I felt strong. Since being on Whitney, my red blood cell count must’ve skyrocketed!

Sam’s knee is still bothering her, especially on the downhill. Mary Beth and I both donated to her one of our trekking poles to help lessen the load on her knee. So with her deficit on the downhills and mine on the uphills, together we make up one whole Mary Beth!

As noontime approached, I felt myself getting fatigued. The skies weren’t feeling any better, as they soon turned dark. After what seemed like an eternity of uphill, we found ourselves in an open meadow and what I consider to be the most beautiful art of this trip yet! The mountains were indescribable and pictures can’t hardly do them justice.

But we had to keep moving, as the clouds of doom were enclosing around us. Luckily we made it to below tree line when it started to drizzle and thunder. While we were going down, someone coming up warned us that the upcoming creek crossing was difficult to cross due to depth and strong current, likely getting worse because of the storm. With this information, we decided to stop right before Wright Creek and set up camp. And thank God we did. Within minutes of being in our tents, it started to pour. For 3 hours. Sam’s tent flooded and she was literally floating on her air mattress, requiring a quick and swift move. My tent flooded to a lesser extent, but I was prepared with my coffee cup and sunshirt. Every time the rain seems to end, it starts back up again. Frustrating doesn’t even begin to describe it. And that creek? They may as well rename it a river. Cause that thing is wild. Can’t wait to cross it in the morning!

We have a long and critical day tomorrow. Not only are we going over Forrester Pass, but we are meeting the resupply folks who are bringing in our food via pack mules!

Well, the thunder and lightening had ceased (for now), but the rain is still pouring. Can’t wait to start off the day tomorrow with soaking wet gear!

Day 3: Oh Whitney, If it’s Meant to be, It’ll be

July 19th 2018; Mt Whitney: 15 miles

In addition to my other two mantras: everything is temporary and suck it up buttercup, I added two more to my repertoire. If it’s meant to be, it’ll be and anything worth doing in life doesn’t come easy. So basically, I was giving myself conflicting motivation. If you don’t make it, eh it wasn’t meant to be. But you better try your darn hardest cause it’s not supposed to be easy!! So did we make it?! Well hold your horses and let me tell you! We all agreed to wake up early and start the journey at 4:30am. There was a prediction of bad weather from the ranger who checked our permits at Crabtree Meadows and we wanted to make sure we weren’t caught up top in the midst of a storm. Of course, when I woke up this morning and checked my watch, I was horrified to see that my alarm didn’t go off and it was 4:12am! I don’t think I have ever jumped into action so quickly from a dead sleep. I got dressed and had breakfast and fashioned my tent so should a storm happen, my stuff didn’t get wet when my tent surely would flood. Ready just in time, we set out to meet Whitney. Being so early, the sun was far from rising. We had to use headlamps to guide ourselves through the dark for the first hour, which flew by. Soon we made it to the infamous Guitar Lake. I’ll give ya one guess as to why it’s named that. A lot of people just finishing their SOBO trip camp here for a shorter hike up Whitney and a more convenient exit point out of Whitney Portal. The lake was stunning and we got to see the sunrise over the background mountains – bathing them in a pink glow. Stunning. After Guitar Lake, we hit some pretty major switchbacks to the Whitney Trail Junction. I knew that if I made it up the roughly 1.5K’ climb, I would make it to Whitney! With my mantras on repeat and taking it slow and steady, I found myself feeling great! The only time I had any doubt was when a rock slide occurred on the mountain directly in front of us. It was an identical mountain to the one we were climbing. What if that happened to us?! But we were safe from that natural disaster, at least. As Guitar Lake got smaller and smaller, I realized that I had made it to the junction! I couldn’t believe I made it before I knew it. At the junction, a lot of people who are entering or exiting through Whitney Portal tend to leave their packs so they don’t have to lug them up to the summit. Opportunistic marmots have learned this and savagely tear through packs to get to food. The fat little things have no fear of humans or other vicious marmots. In fact, one of the SOBO hikers just finishing up said he heard a story where a hiker saw two marmots fighting over food. One of them tore out the other’s throat and started going cannibalistic on his fellow species. Rather graphic, I know, I found this story hard to believe. Likely just a hiker wives tale. From the junction, it was “only” 1.9 miles to the summit with a 1K’ elevation gain. Those last miles weren’t easy, but wow were they special. They were breathtaking. But as I learned, with beauty comes danger. There were plenty of sheer drop offs with boulder scrambling to boot. With one misstep you could land thousands of feet down. So I treaded carefully. I was becoming progressively short of breath, but was motivated by people passing me telling me, “you’re almost there!” Soon I rounded a corner and I could see it – the famed shelter at the top of Mt. Whitney!! I felt elated. The only the separating me from the summit was about 500′ of walking. Though it took a lot of effort, I did it. I got to the summit. And then the tears started flowing. I became emotional because I didn’t think I would ever make it. Had you asked me just 48 hours ago if I would be able to, I’d laugh and say heck no in between vomits. The girls were waiting for me at the top. I made a few tear filled calls (not sad tears – exhausted, joyfilled I MADE IT tears) and snapped a few pictures. Due to impending clouds, we didn’t stay up top long. But I did get to soak in a little of the beauty of being literally on top of the world, with Mt. Whitney being the tallest peak in the contiguous United States. We flew down the mountain (downhill is so much more forgiving) and considered jumping into Guitar Lake. But again, approaching clouds of doom stopped that idea. Unfortunately, in our haste coming down from the mountain, Sam hurt her knee. I’m gonna try to use my career to see if I can help at all. Fingers crossed it helps! We got back into camp at 1:30pm. We joked that all our food in our canisters are going to be gone, stolen by the folks from yesterday. But all was intact. We were beat. Again, rain and thunder threatened with little precipitation. The ranger told us that for the next 48 hours we are in monsoon conditions. Great! We’re planning an early bedtime again. I know I’ll sleep well, I accomplished that which I didn’t think possible. I have someone upstairs looking out for me for sure.

Day 2: Okay, Maybe I Can…

July 18th 2018; Lower Rock Creek – Crabtree Meadow: 7.6 miles

Today was a piece of cake. A bitter, unsweetened piece of cake made with blood, sweat, and tears – but a piece of cake nonetheless. And I didn’t hate eating it, mainly because it didn’t make me puke.

We all got good sleep last night. Between the peaceful quiet, darkness, and being wiped from the day’s hike, we slept hard and we slept in. As the sun made its appearance, we set out our still soaking clothes to dry. Not being nearly dry enough to mix with my unassaulted clothes, I makeshifted a clothesline on the outside of my pack – worked perfectly!

We set out and soon came across the first uphill battle. I took it slow and steady, mindful of my breathing and heart rate, I took intermediate breaks to avoid a repeat of yesterday. We even hit our first river crossing!

Shortly after, we hit Guyot Pass, our highest elevation of the day at 10.9K’. Being below the dreaded 11K’, I did not feel any of the symptoms of altitude sickness. In fact, I had an appetite and was able to eat lunch! Thank God I didn’t puke that up – tuna wouldn’t taste so good coming back up.

After Guyot Pass, we marched quickly over Guyot Flats – aptly named because they were, well, flat. And luxurious. We headed down a boulder field and had our first glimpse of the backside of Mt. Whitney (or what we thought was Whitney) since Monday. Soon clouds gathered, so we hastened the pace the camp should we be caught in another storm. We got to camp early – 1:45pm and set up camp.

A lot of people are here, doing what we’re doing. One crew made it up to Whitney today, but found themselves low on food. They saw us organizing our canisters and asked if we had any extra food. Lucky for them, we did and they were grateful for the donation. We came to learn that they completed the PCT 2 years ago and are now doing the High Sierra Trail. You would think with all that experience, they would know how much food to pack! However, I’ve come to learn that PCTers rely a lot on JMTers to pack too much food and use their leftovers as their resupply. So basically, PCTers are the vultures of the hiking world. HA – just kidding of course.

^^The infamous highly private pit toilet of Crabtree Meadows

We seem to have evaded the storm with only a few claps of thunder and a little sprinkling. We are going to bed early to get up early to hike Mt. Whitney. It’s another 4K’ higher than we are now, and although I felt much better today, I am not confident I’ll be able to make it up to 14.6K’! But we shall see, I’m going to attempt it no matter what. We have a game plan in place should I need to turn back. Hopefully it doesn’t need to be implemented, but it’s always best to be prepared!

Right now my body feels good – no aches and pains to complain about. However, the state of my feet is of minor concern. They look diseased with the skin just sloughing off (hopefully you’re not eating!). However, I have come to learn that is normal. My two index toenails are also about to fall off. Don’t need them anyway, right?!

Day 1: I Don’t Think I Can…

July 17th 2018; Horseshoe Meadows – Lower Rock Creek; 14 miles

***You may notice this is being posted before I’m supposed to be done the trail. Don’t worry I’m still set on completing the JMT – I’m having an off day in Mammoth trying to figure out plans with the raging Ferguson fire ravaging Yosemite!***

After Keith dropped us off at Horseshoe Meadows, we just chilled – literally. Being at 10k’ elevation, we felt a considerable difference in temperature between here and Lone Pine – which is good. Cause Lone Pine was 102 degrees when we left. Because it is so much cooler, I was instantly worried that I’d be freezing at night. But a gentleman I met in LP, Sean from Nashville who just finished the JMT the day before, assured me that would not be the case. “If anything, you’ll be warm!” Reassuring, however, I was still skeptical.

We were enjoying the peace and quiet until a group of barely supervised youths showed up with an arsenal of every possibly weapon. I’m not kidding. From throwing stars, to paintball guns, to machetes, to slingshots, to airsoft rifles, they had it all besides an AR-15. They even assaulted some poor mountain squirrel! They were rowdy and obnoxious. Needless to say, I wasn’t a fan. And neither were a lot of the other campers. Meg, an 80 year old woman who has hiked in the Sierras every summer since she was 8, reported them to highway patrol. Unfortunately there was nothing for them to do about it! Oh well. We went to bed early in anticipation for the first day of the JMT!!

Shocker – we didn’t sleep well. The boys were yelling at each other until midnight until another hiker told them to shut up. I would’ve applauded, but I was half unconscious at that point. We were also visited by a pack of howling wiley coyotes and what I can only guess to be a bear. But fret not – they only made a LOT of noise. They left us alone. The stars were magnificent. It was such a clear night and I was able to see thousands of stars and the Milky Way during my 3 trips to the bathroom.

We woke up at 5:30am and set out for the trail at exactly 7:31am. We couldn’t believe it, we were really doing it! No turning back now. Months of planning and stressing every little detail is finally coming to fruition!!

The first 3 miles were easy. Here I was in my head thinking “Man, I slept okay last night, no issues with altitude sickness – I’ll be fine!” Who Nelly, did I regret jinxing myself. We hit Cottonwood Pass early on. I felt fine the first half of it, but soon I was trailing behind the girls. My heart was pounding and I was gasping for air. Okay, maybe the altitude is something I’ll have to contend with. With some short breaks, I was able to march on to the top of the pass. What a beautiful view! I was only able to notice it after I caught my breath.

We were well over 11k’ and I was feeling it. My heart rate was well over 140 BPM and with a normal resting HR in the 50s with trouble getting it above 100 during exercise, I was not used to feeling my heart beat so violently. It felt like it was trying to break right out of my chest! We took a snack break and trudged (in my case) on. Any kind of uphill of any kind of grade left me breathless. As someone who normally loves uphills, this crushed my spirit. Every 2 minutes I had to stop. My heart rate never went below 120bpm. Soon lightheadedness kicked in. Followed by nausea. Very shortly followed by vomiting. I had NEVER felt so horrible in my life and the sun beating down didn’t help. Knowing I wasn’t even don’t half of the days hike – I sincerely thought I was going to die. But Mary Beth and Sam were so patient and encouraging. They stopped frequently for me and motivated me to press on. And so I did.

As someone who loves physical challenges and putting my body through vigorous tests, today was easily my number one most physically challenging experience and in top 10 emotionally challenging days to date. Along with feeling that the Grimm Reaper was following me (not hard for him – I was so slow) I also thought something worse – I wasn’t going to be able to complete the JMT. The thought crushed me. But not for long. With only 6 miles left, I remembered my 2 favorite phrases. “Everything is temporary” and “suck it up buttercup”. Drawing strength from the phrases, I was able to complete the hike. Doesn’t hurt that it was all downhill! If you remember from my last post, I was prescribed anti altitude sickness meds. Why not use them if my altitude sickness was so horrible?! Well you see, I couldn’t keep anything down. Water, food, pills, you name it, it was coming back up. I hope to never feel that way ever again!! As we approached camp, I thought I heard thunder. Just what we needed! Mary Beth checked her handy dandy Garmin In Reach for the weather, which gave a prediction of 10% chance of rain. As we hiked, the skies turned darker and the thunder louder. We were in the 10% zone. The skies opened we marched 1 mile in search of shelter. We tried to wait it out, but it only got worse. We threw up our tents in a frazzled rush. My tent of course got flooded. I maguivered a way of unflooding it by bailing the water out with my coffee cup (never drinking instant coffee again – it’s all I could taste during the vom fest) and my sun shirt. It’s too white anyway. It needed to get a little dirty. And wouldn’t you know – as soon as it was perfectly dry (I was so proud) the sun came out! What a great first day. With the rain gone, we could cook dinner. Being back down at 9k’, my appetite came back full force after puking out its entire contents and not eating all day. Day one at 14 miles. I always knew this day would be difficult, I just could never imagine how difficult it would be. Give me Mt. Washington. Give me the hills of Washington State on bike. Give me the hot never ending hills of Kentucky on bike. But dear God – don’t ever give me today back again. Despite feeling horrible that whole time, I’m proud. I have never hiked 14 miles in one day (didn’t tell the girls – “oooo that’s why she sucks!”) let alone 14 miles in 10K’ of elevation. I made it when I was positive I wouldn’t. It’s a good day, and unlike the past 5 days I sure wasn’t bored! I’m definitely not acclimated yet, so I’m kind of terrified that today may be repeated soon enough. But tomorrow is half the distance and I can always turn around during Mt. Whitney!

A Hero’s Journey is Riddled with Obstacles

Alright well I’m no hero, but boy oh boy has the JMT thrown some obstacles my way – and we’re not even on the trail yet! From a wildfire evacuating Whitney Portal, to a mudslide taking out the road into Horseshoe Meadows, to the discovery of a huge tear in my sleeping bag, to a trip to urgent care, the past week has not been easy or relaxing. But the wildfire was quenched, the slide was cleared, the sleeping bag was patched, and the health scare was handled (and I scored some altitude sickness meds!). More than one time did I think I’d have to cancel the trip – and believe me when I tell you that it caused quite a panic that my lucky parents got to deal with. But alas, here I am in Lone Pine, sitting outside the hostel staring at the cloud shrouded Mt. Whitney as I type my last blog post until I get off the trail – whenever that may be. All disasters have so far been averted, and we all made it!

Here’s how I got here: I left Philly and flew into Reno Thursday. Because I had an entire afternoon devoid of anything to do, I rented a car and spent some time at Donner Pass and Lake Tahoe, both of which were less than an hour drive from Reno. If you know anything about the Donner Party, then you might know why I found it a must see. Though you wouldn’t know at the peak, the Donner Party resorted to cannibalism when stranded in the Sierras for months at a time during the height of winter. The plaques at the top just touch upon the “hardships” the pioneers faced and how so few of them survived. It makes for a less gruesome story I suppose. But I paid my homage and ironically thought how such a tragedy could happen in a place of such striking beauty. I also dwelled upon their crisis and hope a similar one doesn’t befall me on the trail!

Because I still had plenty of afternoon left, I decided to ride to Lake Tahoe. I have heard nothing but great things about it and wanted to see it for myself. And I’m sure glad I did – it was worth the hype. It strongly resembled one of my favorite lakes that I’ve been to, Colter Bay in the Grand Tetons. The water was clear and blue as anything with snow capped mountains in the background. It was beautiful and a great way to spend the rest of the afternoon.

After that I made it back to Reno. Let’s just say I didn’t fall in love with Reno and I have really no desire to go back. I visited the REI to pick up some fuel that I couldn’t bring on the plane and spent the rest of the night in the motel. I went to bed early and slept in. In the afternoon I returned the car and waited for the bus to take me to Lone Pine. And waited. And waited. Luckily I wasn’t alone. There were a few other hikers also waiting around (including a father son duo – the kid couldn’t have been more than 10 – thru hiking the entire trail in 17 days!), so I knew I didn’t miss it. It eventually came an hour late. When telling the driver I was going to Lone Pine, the very last stop, he straight faced said, “oh I’m running so late. I hope you make it”. Uh what? I thought he was kidding so I took it with a grain of salt.

The bus ride was gorgeous. We were surrounded by the stunning Sierras and every turn brought unbelievable views. I do admit I dozed off a few times during the ride, but what else is there to do during a 5.5 hour bus ride?! We pulled into Bishop when I realized that the bus driver was completely serious about not being confident about me getting to Lone Pine. I had a connector in Bishop and since we were so late, it wouldn’t be unlikely that the other bus would’ve just departed without me, leaving me stranded! But lo and behold, the bus was there, waiting for me. I felt sorry that I made everyone wait, but at the same time I felt so relieved! I hopped on and off we went to Lone Pine.

On the bus were a few other hikers also going to Lone Pine. Two guys were doing a section of the JMT (Whitney Portal – Mammoth Lakes). I chose to carry my pack in a bag for convenience of flying (not so convenient for carrying). They saw me hauling around the bag and instantly nicknamed me “Body Bag”. Thank God I’ll never see them again and that name won’t stick as my trail name. Not entirely the most becoming name that could be bestowed upon me.

The town of Lone Pine is tiny. Super tiny. It took me 10 min to walk from one end to the other. But there are plenty of places to eat! I stopped by a Mexican place upon arrival and sat facing the Sierras. My brain wasn’t functioning very well after such a long bus ride when I found myself asking just what mountain I was looking at. It looked huge and scary and menacing. Then it struck me – I was staring right at Mt. Whitney! And with that I felt my stomach drop – I’ll be climbing up that fierce looking mountain in less than a week. I almost threw up the delicious tacos I had just scarfed down.

I saw a beautiful sunset and went back to the hostel for some shut eye. The next morning I met up with Sam, a girl who joined us for the hike! She had a few other obstacles thrown her way. A day before she was supposed to fly out to meet a friend who would then drive her to Lone Pine, the friend bailed. Essentially, Sam had a few hours to change flights and figure out a totally new game plan. And apparently the same thing happened to Mary Beth! Unbelievable. I am beyond thankful that all my forms of transportation worked out for me. Pretty curious how many other hurdles are thrown our way before we leave for the trail! I find solace in the fact that the pacific bike route started so horribly too, but turned out to be one of my favorite trips to date. Hopefully I find the same pattern in the JMT!

like I said before, Lone Pine is tiny. There isn’t much to do. And it’s enough to drive a person crazy. Saturday I spent the day reading a novel in McDonalds. 6 hours later, I was left disappointed in the book and the McDonald’s I think was pretty annoyed that I set up camp there for the afternoon. But what else is there to do?! But I gotta say, the sunsets here are pretty hard to beat.

Sunday I walked the 4 mile round trip trek to the Interagency Visitor Center to pick up the permits. They were there waiting for me! Having them in my possession definitely made everything real. We now have everything we need to get this party started! I even booked a guy to drive us to the trailhead. A much more reliable way of doing it than relying on unreliable hitchhiking. Mom and Dad, you can sleep easy at least for tonight.

We ate our last good meal – a huge breakfast and are gonna get subs for dinner tonight. We shipped back all our extra gear and will head up to the trailhead campground this afternoon!

Can’t believe all the planning has led to this – I am excited and also a little terrified to see what comes our way, but at least we’re not alone on this journey!

JMT Prep: The White Mountains

Let me just start off by saying I’m pretty happy the John Muir Trail is in the Sierras and not the White Mountains. Not that New Hampshire isn’t beautiful and mesmerizing – because it most definitely is that and more, but whoa is it tough. Which I’m very grateful for because it made for a great shakedown for the JMT!

As the sign above clearly states, the White Mountains (particularly its most famous peak, Mt. Washington) is significantly dangerous and should be treated with respect and safety should be prioritized. Over 180 rescues occur yearly, mostly due to hypothermia (even in the summer!) and overexposure. I was aware of this going into this hike and made it all the more exciting to a semi- adrenaline junkie like myself.

I am lucky enough to have a wonderful father who was willing to plan the whole outing and even hike it with me! So fresh off the bike tour, I quickly packed my backpack and we were on the road for the 8 hour journey to NH.

We originally were going to have a first day starting at Pinkham Notch and hike 7 miles to Valley Way tentsite. However, after weather reports indicated that there were going to be afternoon thunderstorms we reconsidered. Because that trail is exposed and above tree line for the last portion of the hike, we decided we didn’t want to worry about getting struck by lightning just yet. We got dropped off at the Valley Way trailhead via shuttle late morning for a 3.8 mile hike up to the tentsite.

The hike was mostly in trees, sheltered from the late morning/early afternoon sun. Yes, sun! Barely a cloud in the sky, making us pretty hopeful we might outrun the storm and be able to climb Mt. Madison before the heavens opened. The trek to the tentsite was pretty challenging. Nearly 3000′ in 3.4 miles means a pretty significant and relentless climb steeply up rocks and boulders. Thank goodness I caved in and bought trekking poles – a piece of equipment I used to believe was unnecessary and if I’m being honest, I saw as quite pretentious. But now I see people using them no longer as snobby, but smart! They are a huge help when hoisting yourself up rocks and assist tremendously with maintaining balance, especially when you have a 40lb pack trying to knock you down with every step.

But alas, we carried on (literally) and eventually made it to the site with empty bellies and a quickly clouding over sky. We ate lunch and set up the tents. As we were debating whether or not to attempt Madison, the clouds made the decision for us. Rain started and we sought shelter in the tents. The rain was on and off (mostly on) for hours on end. At times it was aggressive and I thought a river might form and sweep us down the mountain. We awoke the next morning with wet tents and soggy gear.

Nothing is worse than breaking down a saturated campsite, but ya gotta do what ya gotta do! All the wet gear likely added a couple of pounds to our already heavy packs, but we threw it on our backs anyway and headed up for Madison.

The fog we encountered affected visibility quite a lot, but still below the tree line, we had no idea what was awaiting us. As we ascended above the tree line we encountered some pretty significant gusts of wind. I didn’t think much of it – I’d rather hike in it than bike in it was as much thought as I gave it. I never questioned the safety of it until, that is, we got to Madison Hut to refill on water. All the guests were in a full out panic trying to reschedule their whole hike based on weather reports and the wind they deemed was too strong and unsafe to hike in. I then began to question everything. The staff in the hut were recommending people seek alternative routes to Mt Washington, including going down Valley Way and hopping the shuttle on over to the peak. No way! I was already content with skipping Mt. Madison, but there was no way I was going to skip the star of the show! Dad and I decided all the hut folks were being sissies and we were determined to get to Mt. Washington. Is it any surprise to see where I get my stubbornness from??

We almost immediately reconsidered this decision as we exited the hut and were hit smack in the face with wind that seemed to have increased exponentially. But we persisted, despite warnings from hikers who turned back claiming it was too windy for them to continue. Psh. It’s just wind folks. For 5 miles we battled the said winds that at times full out pushed me over causing me to crash into a boulder. There was one patch where the only way I could cross was by literally crawling. I couldn’t even stand up the wind was so aggressive! With a 40 lb pack, crawling was not the easiest, but it was the only way.

Despite the treachery we encountered, I loved every second of it. There was only one moment during the crawling bit that I got truly frustrated by it, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Even though there wasn’t any sort of view due to the thick blanket of fog, I loved the eerieness and spookiness vibe it added to the hike. The treachery continued with full out rock scrambling (not the easiest thing in the world with a pack!) and a snow crossing!

We took lunch in a random spot, unable to make heads or tails of where we were because of the fog. As we ate, we saw patches of blue sky float above us for brief seconds. Eventually the time increased and we realized we were eating right in front of Mt. Washington! It was spectacular to finally see views of the mountains that we were missing out for miles and hours before. It made me even more excited to get to the top!

With a clear sky, we were only a few miles from the summit. It was an absolutely stunning hike. The wind was still blowing us around, but with views like that I didn’t mind too much. We even saw the famed Cog Railway!

After a pretty grueling 0.2 miles, we made it to the top!! The wind was pretty angry up there and it dropped a lot in temperature. After snapping a few pictures, we sought refuge in the lodge for a break. We layered up, snapped a few more pictures (so cold I forgot to take scenic shots), and we went on our way to Lake of Clouds Hut!

We arrived right before dinner and attempted to sleep in a room full of snoring strangers. The hut itself was interesting to say the least. I’m just thankful I brought earplugs! We did get to witness a sunset so beautiful it rivaled those of the west coast.

The morning weather report was beautiful – warm temps with low winds! Perfect compared to the day before where Mt Washington had recorded wind gusts of 94mph!!

The hike back to the car was gorgeous and awe inspiring. We could see the trail for miles ahead of use before entering back below the tree line.

The hike was a lot more difficult than either of us were anticipating due to the rocks and boulders we had to scramble across. Plus, it was mostly downhill. Like biking, I’d almost always rather go up than down. Taking time to carefully go downhill affected our ETA back home, but it was worth it! We stumbled back to the car early afternoon with weak and tired legs.

Despite the adversity we encountered between the rain, wind, rocks, fog, and huge elevation gains, I had a blast. I wouldn’t change a thing about the hike to make it easier. I loved the challenge and I got to test out all my gear before the JMT! Despite a leaky tent, I’m gonna count that it doesn’t rain out in the Sierras and I’m gonna keep the old girl in commission.

So, JMT, hit me with your best shot! I’m coming for ya 😉

2.5 Month Countdown Till the JMT!

In July 2013, my two brothers, my father, and I hiked the last 23 miles of the John Muir Trail.  We spent three days two nights hiking through the wilderness of Yosemite National Park and even got to climb up the world famous Half Dome!  Being my first overnight backpacking trip, I was nervous yet excited to experience what I would consider my first true grand adventure.  Granted it was tough and I did have one mental breakdown (I blame trail mix raisins for that), this trip planted the seed for what has now come to fruition – hiking the entire John Muir Trail!

 

When I told people I was planning on hiking the John Muir Trail, I was received with blank stares and “Oh… okay, cool” responses.  I briefly described the trail, but the lack of enthusiasm persisted and “Why would you want to do that?” was a quick retort.  Well let me explain just why I would want to do it, and no, it’s not because I’m crazy! Named after the naturalist John Muir, the JMT is a 210 mile long distance trail in the Sierra mountain range in California, passing through King’s Canyon National Park, Sequoia National Park, and Yosemite National Park.  Having already hiked some of the Yosemite portion of the trail, I can attest to the awe inspiring stunning beauty of 10% of the trail, I can only imagine what the rest looks like!

John Muir Trial Map

Now that I have certainly sold you on the wonders of the trail, I’m sure you’re asking yourself, “wow, that sounds absolutely wonderful!  How do I sign up for it!?” Well, I’m here to walk you through that, and boy, prepare yourself for one heck of a stressful planning process.

I was always aware that in order to hike the JMT, you would need a permit.  Having gone through the permit process two years in a row to hike rim to rim in Grand Canyon, I know of the serious and permanent heart break/trauma that comes with being denied.  I was very well aware that getting a denial for the JMT was a very real likelihood (I believe 65% get denied) and that all my dreams could potentially be shattered.  A few days before the permit lottery process was going to start (February 1st), I decided to do a little more research on obtaining a permit.  After rummaging around the internet for a little, I stumbled upon a blog that suggested starting at a different trailhead than the wildly popular Whitney Portal (the southern terminus).  Not reliant on a corrupt lottery system (only my opinion that it’s corrupt… stupid Grand Canyon….), you can get a guaranteed permit online months ahead of time.  I must’ve looked at the website to book the exact moment it opened reservations, because I could reserve any day for up to 24 people! I had the pick of the litter! After 2 days, the majority of the permits were already reserved, including 4 heading out from Horseshoe Meadows July 17th.  Those were mine!  After reserving the permits, the reality that I will soon be hiking my first thru-hike really hit.

If you’re anything like my mother, the fact that I reserved 4 permits likely allowed you to breathe out a sigh of relief.  I am not crazy enough to hike through bear country alone!  In a long convoluted story, one of my childhood friend’s sister caught wind that I was interested in hiking the JMT.  She contacted me and said she wanted to join.  Just the year prior she herself was denied permits for the trail, those pesky permits!! So far it is just me and Mary Beth hiking, but she has two friends who might meet up with us further along the trail.  We’re still working on logistics for that to work.

Speaking of logistics, there are a ton that go into planning a hike like this.  Starting south of Mt Whitney, we are adding around 20 miles to the entire trip.  Worth it to be guaranteed a permit for hiking AND a permit for climbing Half Dome!  In fact, Half Dome was a huge inspiration for starting at the Southern terminus of the trail. Most people go SOBO, however, ever the rebel, I wanted to go NOBO just to end the trail climbing Half Dome.  With a 45 degree slope up/down a slick granite rock face, your only hope for not sliding to oblivion is clutching for dear life onto a cable.  Climbing Half Dome in 2013 was easily top 5 scariest moments of my life, and I can’t wait to do it again!

But, back to logistics.  We obviously will be carrying everything we need on our backs.  Being in bear country, it is necessary that we carry a bear canister to prevent those nosey bears from knocking on our tents late at night and stealing our food – ultimately putting them in danger.  In fact, that’s why canisters are required.  Not for your safety, but so bears don’t become accustomed to getting food from humans easily, making them more brazen than they already are and increasing their chances of having to be euthanized.  If you are caught without a canister, you will be escorted off the trail and served with a $5,000 fine – yeah, no thanks.  Being confined to a bulky canister with limited capacity poses a pretty huge problem.  Planning on taking 23 days to complete the trail (July 17-August 8th), we cannot possibly fit all our food in the canister.  Not that we would even want to… hello back pain! Only able to carry 7 days of food at a time, we are forced to resupply along the trail.  For the Northern end of the trail, that’s easy!  There are a surprising amount of resorts who perform resupply in the backcountry wilderness.  Essentially you mail them a bucket of your food, pay a fee for them to hold it, and pick it up right along the trail.  Being so remote, they have to mule pack train it in, accounting for the relatively high fee for holding the bucket.  Perfect! Simple solution to a huge problem.

Ah, not so fast.  The Southern end of the trail does not practice typical southern hospitality.  There is a huge span without any on trail resupply options.  A lot of people hike 7 miles off the trail and hitchhike into a town to resupply, which adds a day to the trip.  Being on a time constraint, we are not able to consider this as an option.  Instead, we are likely going to use a pack train of mules to haul our food in, where we will meet them on the trail.  Able to carry 250 lbs of food, we will not be at a risk for going hungry!  However, there is an extremely high cost that comes along with this.  We are looking for other hikers to share the cost and resupply with us.  Here’s to hoping someone bites at our offer!

itinerary

Okay, so food and timeline is all figured out (itinerary is above… a lot of time and frustration was put into that schedule, but look at how beautiful it is!), what about camping?? Where do you camp in the middle of the wilderness?? Well the beauty of backpacking in the middle of the wilderness is that you can camp basically anywhere.  Just as long as you’re so many feet from the trail, pretty much anywhere is fair game.  I used Elizabeth Wenke’s guidebook at my number one resource for mapping out the itinerary.  Within the pages of the book are suggested areas to camp as well as trail notes for every section of the trail.

Food

Because I’ll be shipping out my food weeks before I arrive, I have to prepare it weeks in advance.  Obviously, I have to pack food with a long shelf life.  Can you tell I have a super sweet tooth? In addition to candy (gummy bears not pictured) I’ll basically be living off of freeze dried food, peanut butter, and tuna.  Can’t wait!  Without a doubt I’ll be craving a nice juicy cheeseburger the entire time.  But suffering builds character, right?

So how does one prepare for a trail that remains above 8,000′ elevation with a total of 47,000′ elevation change?  Well, my friend Sheena and I will be biking down the pacific coast just weeks before embarking the JMT.  That will hopefully help with cardio!  Once I get back from that, my father and I will be hiking the White Mountains in New Hampshire to make sure all the gear works and if I have to make any last minute cuts/additions, I’ll have a good 3 weeks to make the necessary adjustments.  New Jersey isn’t ideal for training for a high elevation adventure.  I’ll be heading out to California 5 days before the start date in an attempt to acclimate.  Also, I’m forced to go out early because transportation doesn’t run during the weekends.  Really.  What bus company doesn’t run on the weekends?!  As inconvenient as it may be, at least it gives me time to acclimate, right? Cause with conquering Mt Whitney (elev 14.5k’) day 3, I’m gonna need all the time I can get so as to not get altitude sickness.

JMT gear

Above is a picture of my gear.  It is by no means a full representation of all that I’ll have to pack (literally just ordered more junk online), but all the important stuff is there!  Except the bear canister. Of course, I forgot the canister. But I’m too lazy to set it all back up just for that. So it gets a solo shot.  All in all, I’m expecting the pack total weight to come in at just under 40 pounds.  That was actually my goal.  Now to some super experienced ultra light backpackers, 40 lbs is blasphemy and they potentially risked an aneurysm just reading that last sentence.  In fact, I am totally expecting people who I run into on the trail to pick apart my pack and actually judge me for all the weight I’ll be carrying.  People can be such snobs.  But you know what? I simply don’t care.  I have a few items some might call “a luxury” and poo poo on my decision to pack it.  Psh,  I would rather be comfortable with all my “luxurious” items  (I would hardly call a pillow a “luxury”… please that’s necessary!) than miserable with a lighter pack.  I’ll so tell them to go pound sand.  Hmph.

bear canister

July 17th is right around the corner and the anticipation is already mounting.  I can’t wait to get out there and see all the sights and be amongst some of the greatest scenery few have ever experienced.