first off - congrats to anyone who has completed the trail and hat's off to the guys who fastpack this -
I made a decision to hike the JMT sometime in mid September for reasons I am not quite sure of. The peak hiking season for this trail is August to mid September so I knew I was pushing the weather boundaries by attempting it in late September/ early October. There are all sorts of logistical problems with actually getting to the trailhead and shuttling yourself back to the starting point after a 200 mile hike.
My plan was to get in a late season solo trip without spending a lot of time on the logistics. For the food situation I decided to go without re-supply points and carry it all with me for simplicity. For the travel I tried to talk my wife into a shuttle situation but she wasn't interested. So I loaded my BMW F650 Dakar into a motorcycle trailer and pulled it with my truck. I drove 8 hours from Phoenix leaving at 2:00 AM on Friday Sept 26th getting to Whitney Portal around 11:00 AM the same day. I dropped my truck and trailer at the base of Mount Whitney and rode my bike up to the trailhead at Yosemite (super nice ride on the Dakar) and got there by 2:30 PM the same day. So only about 12 hours after leaving Phoenix I was up at Yosemite with my hiking gear.
I checked in at the Tuolumne Meadows backcountry permit office and they told me that the Happy Isles trailhead was full, so I decided to cut that part short and start at Tuolumne Meadows shaving 23 miles off the trip total to put the total at 200 miles (its kind of weird that starting at the Happy Isles trailhead loops back around to Tuolumne Meadows so the second day you are at TM anyway). I probably could have "dayhiked" the HI to TM part or got in at Glacier but I just decided to cut it short because I was pressed for time as it was because I wanted to be back in 10 days.
I wanted to do the trip in 8 days but planned for 10 days on the food to give me a slight safety factor. I packed 17 pounds of foods (1.7lb/day) at around +- 32,000 calories. My base pack weight including the mandatory bear can was around 21 lbs putting my total pack at around 38 lb. The only "niceties" I took were my digital camera, my ipod and backup battery for it, and a pint of some super 59.5 proof single malt Aberlour.
So starting out from Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite put the total trip length at 200 miles. I figured if I did 30 miles a day I would be doing great and complete in 7 days, 25 miles a day would be good and complete in 8 days, and 20 miles a day I wouldn't starve and be done in 10 days. Anything less for mileage would be unacceptable.
Solo hiking is always a little risky whatever you are doing. A simple ankle sprain can lead to an "epic" or a broken leg could be the end of it. No one is going to help you but yourself -- that is both the beauty and the potential tragedy of it.
9-27-08 Day One Saturday: 25 miles
Spent the 1st night in the Tuolumne Meadows backpacker campground after parking my bike in the parking lot at the backcountry office. I couldn't get much sleep and some climbers came into the camp at like 1:00 AM after a party or something so I decided to get up (I am a bit of an insomniac) and get started at 2:00 AM. So with my headlamp on I headed south along the JMT. Now -- if you ever want an evolutionary gut-check, go hiking in the middle of the night in near freezing temperatures through the woods in bear country alone. It really gets the animal instincts going full bore. I didn't get eaten and the sun came up around 6:45 and I summited Donahue Pass (the southern boundary of Yosemite at that point) around 9:30 AM. I hiked until around 4:00 PM that day (14 hours) to about a mile from Shadow Lake. Weather was perfect but I was tired and the middle of my left foot was beginning to blister which I knew was a bad sign. I got a nice campsite along the creek and went to bed about 7:00 PM. Slept perfectly for once. (+- 45 degrees maybe)
9-28-08 Day Two Sunday: 23 miles
Got going at around 7:30 AM for a late start compared to the previous morning. Hiked from around Shadow lake to Purple Lake where I got in around 7:00 PM just as it was getting dark. Set up my tent then ate dinner in the dark with my headlamp. The whole "wieght" of the trip was hitting me -- 200 miles and I am tired and sore on mile 35 or so. I screwed up at Red's Meadow earlier in the day where I took a wrong turn and it costed me 2 frustrating thirsty extra miles. (Low was +- 50 degrees maybe)
9-29-08 Day Three Monday: 25 miles
Got going around 5:00 AM or so and hiked the first 1.5 hours in the dark out of Purple Lake. Summited Silver Pass and descended down to Mono Creek. The clouds were welling up and the thunder started going off. I went up Bear Ridge (brutal 2,000 foot climb) in the afternoon in the drizzling rain. My gear was slightly wet when I set up camp at around 5:00 PM and the night turned out to be a cold one where I woke up in the middle of it to get my fleece jacket and thermals on. (+- 30 degrees maybe)
9-30-08 Day Four Tuesday: 20 miles
Got going about 7:00 AM. Summited Seldon Pass early in the day and came up on some hunters in the Heart Lake region. I hadn't heard anything about the weather in a number of days and I was anxious to know if I was going to get rained on again. They told me the weather was supposed to clear up on Wednesday, but the weekend was to bring a cold spell that "would drop us 20 degrees". I didn't like the sound of that as I was freezing the night before. The hunters said they froze too so that made me feel a little better. I was having some negative thoughts about "bailing" at this point as the blister on my left foot was spreading from the center pad to up throught the webbing between the big toe and the one next to it. Each morning I would limp around for awhile but after a few hours of walking I just got used to the blisters hiked on. I got into Evolution Valley around 5:00 PM and called it a day in a beautiful campsite in the meadow.
10-1-08 Day Five Wednesday: 20 miles
Got going around 7:00 AM again. There was serious frost in the meadow. By this time I had talked to a ranger in Evolution Valley and he confirmed that we were headed for some cold weather over the weekend. There was another ranger station at the end of day 5 at a the Bishop trail junction. I decided in the morning that I would talk with this next ranger about the weather and decide whether to continue. Day 5 was my best day of hiking. Crossing Muir pass around 11:30 AM I descended into a spectacular canyon with alpine lakes, waterfalls, woods, and meadows all alive with the colors of fall. I arrived at the ranger station to find at 4:00 PM to find it "closed for the season". At that point I was feeling pretty alone in this huge valley and decided that with the weather forecast and my growing blisters on my left foot it was time to call it a trip. I was worried about snow in the passes and an infection in my foot that could mess me up for the 70 or so miles I had to go. So I took the "bailout" trail to Bishop Pass and camped about 1500 off the valley floor on a beautiful ledge overlooking the valley.
10-2-08 Day Six Thursday: 13 miles and out midday
Got going around 7:00 AM and crossed Bishop Pass aorund 10:00 AM. The "bailout" trail was 13 miles and 3000 feet elevation gain over a 12,000 foot pass. Along the way I saw some hikers who confirmed that not only were the Sierras in for a weekend cold cycle, but that it was the first of the winter storms to hit the region and could dump as much as a foot of snow in the high country. Got to the trailhead around 12:30 PM after 126 milies on the trail.
There were slight logistical problems from coming out a few days early since I had my truck at Whitney and my bike in Yosemite and I came out at Bishop Pass. I bummed a ride from some hikers at the trailhead almost immediately who were nice enough to take me into Bishop. I had about an hour to get a few beers and a big mexican lunch before I caught a bus to Lone Pine and then hitched a ride up to Whitney to retrieve my truck and trailer. I drove back to Lone Pine where I grabbed a $5 shower at a hostel and then drove up to Yosemite to get my bike loaded up around 7:30 PM in the dark in the freezing temps. I made a quick reservation at the Westin at Mammoth Lakes and I was drinking Guiness and Jameson's on the rocks by 8:30 PM that night (a mere 13 hours after waking up in the backcountry). Some Kobe Sliders and the Westin's "heavenly bed" and I was out like a light. Woke up the next morning and got going back to Phoenix at around 7:30 AM. Arrived home at about 5:30 PM on Friday, exactly 1 week and 13.5 hours after I left. I was six pounds lighter weighing in at 184 pounds when I got back. A pound of fat is about 4000 calories. I figured I was probably burning 7000-8000 thousand calories a day and taking in about 3000 calories a day over 6 days.
They found Steve Fosset's plane on Tuesday or Wednesday of the week I was hiking near Mammoth Lakes. I was probably walking within 2 miles of the crash site when they found it. The news reports say the NSTB got done with their investigation of the crash site on Friday in time to avoid the coming winter storm.
Two hikers died the coming weekend in separate instances partly due to the early winter storm that hit Friday night.
I am sure I made the right decision to get out while I still could with the weather and my blisters both deteriorating rapidly. The whole trip I felt like I was "chasing the end of the season" as campgrounds were closing, rangers were leaving, there were hardly any other hikers, and fall was in the air. I think I will head back next summer to finish the southern third of the trail that I missed out on this trip.