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M Skiing the John Muir Trail

by Kevin Sawchuk

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Article Summary:

It is raining and windy outside as I sit transcribing my memories of an unforgettable winter trip. It's a pleasant storm to watch from inside my home while sipping a hot cup of tea. I'm especially happy to be home as I imagine the tempestuous High Sierra where yet another unusually late, cold winter storm buffets the rugged peaks and drops a soft blanket of impeding snow, forcing spring to an abrupt halt. I could be in middle of this storm on my ninth day skiing the John Muir Trail. If I was there it's likely that I'd be out of food and unable to ski. I know what this storm is like, because just a few days ago I endured a similar one. Despite being unable to complete my trip, I am content right where I am.

This is a story of a challenging trek on skis generally following the 223-mile John Muir Trail (JMT) in spring and winter conditions. The trip was supposed to include a thru-ski of the entire JMT. Ironically the one thing that makes skiing possible - snow - can also make skiing very difficult. On the fifth day of my trip, a cold winter storm dumped deep, heavy snow which slowed my average pace to one mile per hour. "Skiing" down all but the steepest slopes became a trudging slog. After eighty-five miles of skiing I reluctantly decided to abandon the trip, with another eighteen miles of skiing to the nearest trailhead. Had I continued, I would have run out of food two days before arriving at my only food cache. With another two to three feet of snow forecast and no warming to consolidate the already deep snowpack, it's likely my pace would have slowed even further. Being stuck without bailout options or food in the middle of the Sierra during a prolonged winter storm was not a reality I wished to face.

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