I started this report about a month after I returned from my trip. It is now April, 2010 and decided I have to finally post it. Here it goes:
JMT Thru hike August 2009
This trip was a long time in the making. In the early 70’s two family friends of mine hiked the John Muir Trail. At the time I was too young to do so. They did it in 2 stages due to severe weather/snow on one trip that required their exit. This was also at a time when it seemed that hiking the JMT was a month long trek. Ever since that time I had the JMT in the back of my mind. I began backpacking again about 7 years ago with my boys and their Boy Scout troop. I have taken a major trip every year since that time along with a lot of smaller trips.
In July/August of 2008 our scout troop went to the Philmont Scout Ranch. It was a nice twelve day trek. At Philmont, we were known as a “lightweight” troop since we had really geared towards lightening up our entire troop. Everyone bought into it. We would just fly past other groups due to the lightness of our packs. At that time I knew the next big trip I would take would be the JMT.
The JMT group consisted of my brother, his son, my son (who had to meet us on the trail), and me.
Day 0: Los Angeles to Whitney Portal to drop off a car. Then, up the valley and over Tioga Pass into Yosemite Valley. We camped that night at the backpacker’s camp.
Day 1: Our ride (a fine brother in law) woke up at 4:30 am to hike Half Dome with his son. My brother and I headed over to the Ranger Station to pick up permits. Fortunately, we had reservations, so that part went smoothly. By the time we got on the trail it was 9:00 am. Up the horse (JMT) trail and over the Merced River for lunch. When we got to the Half Dome cutoff, I decided to hike Half Dome, since I had never done so. Up and back in about 2 ½ hours. While I was gone, my brother and his son had met a bunch of people, including John, a JMT hiker and Frank, who gave my brother some cheese. One of my brothers nicknames is Queso, or cheese in Spanish so Frank became a fast friend. Frank was on his own pace, getting stuck in Little Yosemite Valley for 2 days. We’re pretty sure that was because he started out with 5 lbs. of Vodka.
We wanted to get to Sunrise HSC the first day, but, only got as far as the top of the switchbacks about 1.5 miles from Sunrise. My Half Dome trip and a late start put us a bit behind. On the way up the switchbacks we ran into Reinhold Metzger and his wife Karen. We would continue to see them off and on for the next few days.
Day 2: Sunrise to Tuolomne Meadows. Cathedral Peak is quite majestic and the pass is a nice climb. We also appreciated the trail crew that were blasting and moving boulders to repair the trail below the pass. We passed a scout troop that had been out 25 days after leaving from Horseshoe Meadow. We arrived at the Tuolomne about noon and ate lunch at the café. My brothers Neo Air was leaking so he picked up an additional mat at the store. As we were heading back to the trailhead Reinhold and his wife were just getting there. We greeted each other again and headed on our way. We hiked up to just above Kuna Creek, set up camp, ate dinner, and went to bed. Reinhold and his wife arrived just before dark and set up camp close by.
Day 3: Up the switchbacks to Upper Lyell Canyon and across the bridge and on to Donahue Pass. The glacier valleys and streams were absolutely amazing. We ran into a nice scout troop from Monrovia, CA on our way up as they were on their way down. At the pass we met a family of seven from Connecticut that were also hiking the entire JMT together. It was awesome to see. They were on a twenty one day pace and ended up staying at Island Lake that evening. We continued over Island Pass, an empty Waugh Lake, Thousand Island Lake, Garnet Lake, Gem Lake, etc. Somewhere along this leg we ran into a guy that was hiking solo. He had been out for about 21 days. It turns out he lived about a mile from me. It is amazing how small the world is when you’re out in the backcountry. We hiked on until ending at Shadow Creek just above Shadow Lake. A nice dip in the stream was just the ticket. We ran into two guys from the Bay Area that were doing a loop and were using their Tarptent Squallfor the first time. My hiking partners always make fun of me because I always check out everyone’s packs, tents, tarps, etc. I am sure many of you understand.
Day 4: We had a date with Reds Meadow to pick up my son who could not make the first 3 days since he was at cross country camp for his high school team. Just as we got to the bottom of the switchbacks we ran into a Ski Patroler from Mammoth and his friend. He said he was carrying 70 lbs. and she had 55 lbs. He said “At least we’re doing it in style!” They had been out for 30 days and must have re-supplied at Mammoth. My wife and daughter were waiting for us at Red’s with my son and we enjoyed a nice lunch at the diner. We also met Goldilocks, a PCT north to south hiker that lives close to my hometown. This was her second PCT hike! After leaving Reds we hiked on to Duck Creek crossing and made camp just before dusk. I wish we had spent less time at Red’s.
Day 5: On to Vermillion. Passing Purple Lake was easy but when we got to Virginia Lake I really wanted to just kick back there. It is a beautiful lake and I am sure I will spend some time there on another hike. We then headed down the switchbacks looking down on Tully Hole and on to cross the Fish Creek bridge and ultimately to Silver Pass. That was a nice trip up. The lakes that we passed on the way up were a nice contrast to the extensive granite. We met a nice couple below the pass that started their trip in Tahoe a couple of weeks earlier. I was not so enamored of the other side of the pass until we got into some coverage and then down the Mono Creek trail. The steps were loose and uneven. I was really thrashed. Downhill hiking really kills my legs! I can go up all day long but pay for it on the downhill. We got to the Vermillion dock at about 4:00 in the afternoon. I was glad to get into Vermillion to take a shower, wash some clothes, and get a cooked meal. Fried chicken, meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and vegetables. There were some Brits there that were completing a JMT hike they had started about 5 years earlier (no, they were not on the trail for 5 years straight). There was also another group of 3 guys from Colorado that were on a 12 day pace to finish the JMT. My brother got a bunk in the tent but I slept outside with my son and nephew. A car pulled up around midnight and a woman got out and was fumbling in the area we were sleeping in. She was looking for a place to pee so I had to inform her that we didn’t want to get pee’d on and that there actually was a bathroom she could use.
Day 6: Breakfast and then re-supply. The weather that day was overcast. While we were packing our canisters a new group came into camp. And who was it? Reinhold and his wife, Goldilocks, a father and daughter from Orange County, CA heading on a north/south JMT and 2 hikers from the Southern USA that had hiked the AT (we’ll get to them later). The owner of The Vermillion Valley Resort had invited a photographer friend to come up and take pictures of some of the JMT hikers as they got off the boat and in camp. I told him Reinhold would be the perfect subject and I was right. We just hung around all day with the group talking and getting ready for the 4:00 boat back to the trailhead. At the trailhead we got on the boat with the AT hikers and headed back to the trailhead. We decided to take advantage of the light and hiked up to Bear Ridge. The weather was changing for the worse so we set up camp on the ridge. While we were making dinner it started to drizzle and later it stared to rain. Fortunately, we set up our shelters when we arrived (the first night we had done so) and spent the whole night in a rainstorm. That really surprised me, since I have spent a lot of time in the Sierras during the summer and rarely had experienced all night rains. Thundershowers, yes, but only once could I remember an all night storm. I stayed dry in my Gatewood Cape, my brother in a Gossamer Gear The One and the boys were under a Gossamer Gear SpinnTwinn.
Oh yes, the southern boys. We talked to them a bit about their AT thru hike and how it was so different than their JMT hike. One was from Tennessee and the other from North Carolina. Since everyone needs a trail name we dubbed them Tennessee Tuxedo and Dale Earnhart. Anyway, while we were talking about them my nephew said, “ To tell you the truth they said something funny to me” he then proceeded to tell us that while the two were talking to my nephew they asked him if it was just he and my son. He said no, they were also with his dad and uncle. He asked my nephew “if they needed anything” which my nephew correctly understood as some sort of “help”. He said to him “what do you mean, like weed?” and the guy said “yea, that, and we got mushrooms”. My nephew declined (we think) and said thanks anyway. From that time on we almost always ended any conversation about food with the statement “we got mushrooms”. It made for some funny conversation on the trail.
Day 7: Packing up wet, we headed towards Selden Pass and ultimately to Sallie Keyes Lake. The day was damp and we passed a number of wet hikers that day. One guy had not brought a shelter other than his poncho and did not have enough rope to tie it up properly. We gave him a few feet of rope and headed on. In the morning, as we were hiking along while it was still misty we ran into a group of three. Two ladies and a man. As we engaged them in conversation they said they were from Italy. These were 2 beautiful Italian ladies in their early twenties and a man in his fifties. They said they were doing geological work up near Lake Italy. It almost appeared as if it were a dream. Italians doing geological work at Lake Italy just off the JMT. Nonetheless, about a mile later we saw the cut off to Lake Italy. I’m still not sure I was dreaming that part of the trip. We also ran across a group of 4 that had spent a wet night in the rain. 2 of them were quite upset and were hoping for the fastest way out. The third seemed to be okay and the fourth looked at us and said “I’m not going out early”. I can’t figure out how they got so wet because they had some nice sized tents strapped to their packs. Probably, poor site selection. They said they had floated in the night!
Just before Selden Pass we met two women that had to be at least seventy years old. It always amazes me how people can continue backpacking well into their seventies and on. It gives me something to look forward to. At Selden Pass we stopped for lunch. While we were eating, Tennessee Tuxedo and Dale Earnhart passed us on their way down to Sallie Keyes Lake. When we got to Sallie Keyes Lakes we decided to keep on going towards Muir Trail Ranch. We arrived at the campground around 7:00 pm. We were still a bit wet and our shelters were also wet. We set up, cooked dinner, and went to bed. It was real damp out and make it feel colder that it really was.
Day 8: Re-supply. Yes, we had 2 re-supplies. We figured we could put some more stuff in our canisters at Vermillion and then finish our re-supply at Muir. Next time, if we are on the same time schedule, I will not stop at Muir Ranch. We rented Bearicade Weekender canisters, which were are smaller than the Expedition, so, we didn’t have enough room for the 8 days worth from Vermillion. This took us more time than we wanted and ultimately we didn’t get back on the trail until about 10:30 am. The hike up the valley along the San Joaquin was beautiful. I love hiking next to a river. There were a few fishermen working the river. We then crossed over the bridge and up some cool switchbacks into Evolution Valley. This was the only river crossing we had to remove our shoes to cross. The day was clear and we wanted to get up to the Evolution Lake area but decided to stop just above McClure Meadows. I had developed muscle stiffness in my left leg that was getting tighter and tighter as we went along. This was probably the earliest we stopped the whole trip. As we looked up towards the Evolution Lake area we could see clouds dancing up there. It was sunny in the valley so we decided to make camp to dry things out and get my leg under control. I spent about 30 minutes cooling my leg in the water and then took a bit of Vitamin I (Ibuprofen). It was nice to relax, eat, and have a fire.
Day 9: Up early to Evolution Lake. We were glad we spent the night a bit lower. As we were passing through we could see it had been a cold wet night up at Evolution Lake. We had frost where we were but stayed dry and warm sleeping under some trees. We then headed up and over Muir Pass That was a nice climb. We ate lunch next to the hut and then headed down. My leg worked well on the uphill but poorly on the downhill. I hadn’t been using my trekking poles much since my nephew was using them to help a sore Achilles. I now needed them and put them into service. When we should have been making time on the downhill I had to slow down a lot to get by. The first part after the pass was not too hard but the lower part of the valley was rough because it was steep and uneven. We ran across a guy from Mendocino (I think) who had blown his knee out. He was hiking quite slowly. We offered what we could but he said he was fine (but hurting) and would just go as far as he could. He would need to exit early. It was a bummer to see him hiking so slowly. Before we got to the Le Conte Ranger Station we found a nice spot to make dinner (Big Pete Meadow?) and rest a bit. We ran into a couple that asked about the guy that had the bad knee. They had advised the Ranger of his predicament. After dinner we decided to stay on schedule and hike past dark so we could get to the Palisades/Kings River confluence, arriving there about 9:15 pm. The boys made a fire, and, we slept out under the stars, like most nights. It’s nice to be in the Sierras when the bugs are not out.
Day 10: The next morning, as we were getting ready to leave, we saw Tennessee Tuxedo and Dale Earnhart as they were starting to head up to the Palisades. I think they were surprised to see us again. I don’t think seeing the two younger ones bugged them but it must have bugged them seeing my brother and I. I’m 49 and he’s 52. We didn’t see them again. We did find out later that they summited Whitney the day before us. I would have to say that Mather Pass is one of the coolest passes we climbed. The golden steps are awesome. I kept looking up, thinking I had to be at the top of the steps, but, they just kept going and going. Finally, we got to the top of the steps and had lunch at Lower Palisade Lake. Mather Pass was nice but the downhill killed me again. We ran into our first Ranger in the valley above Bench Lake Ranger Station. He asked for our permit. Just doing his job. We wanted to get to Lake Marjorie but had to stop well before that at the South Fork Kings River crossing because my leg had cramped up so bad on the descent from Mather. I really didn’t want to go on any more that day. I must admit, I had fears I was going to have to pull out early, but, figured I would just take it day by day.
Day 11: Pinchot Pass. We left late from our camp that morning so we hit Pinchot (Pinché) right about noon. It was hot and nasty. Not my favorite climb. Not the hardest climb, just not my favorite, probably due to the time of day. While we were sitting there taking in the view one guy came flying up the pass. Then another. When the second guy got to the top the first guy gave him a Snickers Bar as a reward. They were on a seven day schedule southbound. A little chatting and they were off. I met a guy on the way down named Andrew that was hiking S to N solo. He was a BPL poster but I did not get his last name. We compared equipment and headed on our respective ways. We then headed down the valley towards the Woods Cross bridge making camp just below the bridge. We had hoped to get up a bit further up the canyon but decided to stay near the bridge.
Day 12: Leaving Woods Creek we headed up the valley. On our original schedule we were going to head over both Glen and Forester on the same day. We were pretty sure that wasn’t going to happen but we were definitely going to get over Glen Pass. Upper Rae Lake is absolutely beautiful. The view looking back down towards the lake is awesome! When I got up the first set of switchbacks I was totally dumbfounded. It felt as if I were in a granite bowl. A couple was resting there and they pointed to the pass. It just blew me away, as it seemed so much altitude gain in such a short time. We got up there in short order and then kicked back and had some lunch. The weather was great. There were about 8 people up there, some heading north others south. As we were sitting there we saw someone just flying up the pass heading south. When he got to the pass he greeted everyone. We named him Frenchie because we figured his accent was French even though he spoke good English. We also met a group of three from San Luis Obispo that were doing the Rae Lakes loop. On the way down we passed a woman that was hiking quite slowly. About a ¼ mile later we met up with her husband. He said she had hike the entire JMT in 1967 and had been hiking in the Sierras for 50 years. He said he had been hiking with her for 36 years. See, we can all keep hiking for years and years!
We ended the day in upper Vidette Meadows about a ¼ mile above some bear boxes. As we passed the bear boxes a camper asked a trail worker if he had seen his friend. After describing him the trail worker said that he indeed had seen him about 2 miles up the road. We set up our kitchen, campsite and ate. While we were eating we saw this older gentleman hiking very slowly. This was probably 90 minutes after we spoke to his friend. The boys (both Eagle Scouts) approached him to see if he needed any help. It appeared he was dehydrated and most likely suffering from some sort of altitude sickness. The gentleman was not real responsive and had a hard time negotiating a small stream crossing. They helped him get water from his pack, which he could not get to on his own. They then walked him down towards his friend. I think he actually said it was his co-worker or even boss. One of the boys went ahead to inform his friend that the other was coming, but was in distress. He didn’t seem to care. The boys walked him down to the friend (some friend) and then figured they did all they could do. I hope the friend knew what to do. It turns out his friend had been waiting for him to arrive for 2 days. I can’t figure out why he hadn’t gone out to find him. It took him 2 days to get up and over Forester. We (devilishly) surmised that the guy took the boss out for a hike and wanted to do him in so he could take the business over. Seems plausible or at least sinister.
Day 13: Leaving our camp we made our way up to Forester Pass. The boys, like usual, just cruised up the pass. Near the end I just put my head down. The top seemed so close, but I just wasn’t getting there. My brother said he had done the same. When we got to the top we met a few other people. One of them was Goldilocks. She was surprised to see us as she had remembered our schedule. We were supposed have summited Forester the day before and spent the night near Tyndall Creek. We were just a few miles behind schedule. We ended up hiking with Goldilocks all the way into Crabtree. We also picked up 2 other hikers from Northern California that were completing the High Sierra Trail. We all got to Crabtree together and made dinner and hung out that evening. We wanted to hike above Guitar Lake, at least to the little tarn above it, but the company was good and it was getting late. The Ranger came by to check on us and was surprised we weren’t all hiking together. No, just we were all just enjoying our last night on the trail, except for Goldilocks, who had about 800 miles more to go.
Day 14: Left camp about 6:00 am. At Trail Crest I recognized Frenchie as he was coming back from the summit. I guess we had it wrong. Frenchie was actually a German living in San Francisco. Go figure. I think we got to the summit before noon. I can’t really remember. My brother had developed some sore muscles which affected both his legs. He didn’t say much until we got to the top of Whitney. He was in a lot of pain and I wasn’t sure we were going to make it out that day. We had a day to burn if we wanted to but at that time you just want to get out. Exiting via Whitney Portal is not my favorite part of the hike. It is completely exposed, constantly descending, crowded and dry. Some how he muscled his way down the trail and we were at our car at the Portal at about 6:00 pm. A little slow but we were on our way to real food, nonetheless. After eating we headed home towards La Cañada and Santa Monica. As we were passing Acton on Hwy. 14 we could see active flames from the Station Fire. That fire started just a mile from my house and was still quite active. I had already spoken to my wife and found that all was in good order. When I got home I was greeted by thick clouds of smoke. I couldn’t wait to get to work in Santa Monica the next day to get out of the smoke.
Looking back: I am writing this roughly a month after we got home from our trip (and now about 9 months later). Not a day passes that I don’t think of the sights, sounds and people on the trail. It is so serene, beautiful and majestic. We ran into one guy as we were heading down the backside of Mather. He said he had been to Yellowstone and found it beautiful but nothing could have prepared him for the views in the Sierras. They are truly incredible. It is so dry, but, there is water all over the place. You hike through one canyon just to enter another, and another, and another. … It really is a magical place.
I left the trailhead with a full pack, canister with 7 days food, 2 liters of water (which I later changed to only carry 1 liter max.) at 27 lbs. I can cut a off a bit more but was pleased with my pack weight. My pack weight, including an empty canister before food and water was about 12.5 lbs. We used a Steripen Journey off and on (it does not like cold water or cold batteries and I would never depend upon it as the only method to treat water) and used chlorine dioxide tablets to treat the majority of our water. I think my son was at about 22 lbs. full weight. My brother and his son were about 31 and 33 lbs. at their heaviest.
Food was probably the biggest item we need to review. We planned the amount of food just fine. We planned to consume about 3200-3400 calories a day. Before we left I posted a question regarding calorie deficits. I know we must have burned about 5,000-6,000 calories a day. We were carrying an average of about 125 calories an ounce. I had to redo my whole food list before leaving because the calorie to ounce was only about 105-110 calories an ounce. By the end of the trip, there were some items I could not eat at all and would give me a gag reflex. I couldn’t eat cashews, which were one of my power foods. I could not eat peanut butter at all the last few days. I don’t think the deficit was much of a problem if I ate all the food I had. When I forgot to eat I would find myself at times losing energy and focus. If I ate my snacks, Peanut M&M’s, Pringles, Bars, Nuts, etc. I would be fine. It was hard to do so at times. Trading with others was helpful since we were all tired of different things. On my next JMT trip I will prepare better by changing the things I eat more often to avoid getting tired of them.
We were following a plan that I found on a webpage called Ultralight Joe’s. I figured we could do 18 miles a day for the 13 days of hiking since we like to hike 15+ miles a day anyway. Some days we did 22.5 and others we did 15. Most days averaged out to about 18-19 miles. Even though I did hurt myself I would do it the same again. It’s not that easy to get more than two weeks off. The next time I would be more careful on the descents. That is where we overloaded our quads. I would just train a bit more for that. I was in total awe of Reinhold and his five day trips and then the four day mark and recently three days. It really boggles the mind that anyone can do it so fast. I can’t claim that I could do it if I were younger because Reinhold Metzger did it in his 60’s. I’m just not built for that kind of speed, I guess.
Our next JMT thru hike will be when my son gets back from living in the Dominican Republic. I hope my daughter and even wife might be interested too! My brother will be able to take his younger son as he will be almost 15 years old at that time. In the meantime we are planning on hiking the High Sierra Trail up to the JMT and then heading north over Forester and looping back to our start. I look forward to relaxing in the Kern Hot Springs. In the meantime it’s back hiking in our local Angeles National Forest that was severely burned by the Station Fire and skiing at Mt. Waterman that’s an hour away from our house. All the while I will be scouring BPL for gear deals, info., and new tips.
Enjoy your hike!