The John Muir Trail – A Virtual Journey

During my hike of the JMT last summer, I stopped every half mile or so (sometimes more during more interesting sections of the trail and sometimes less in forested sections) and took iPhone video at the top of each major pass (and on top of Whitney). I wanted to capture sort of a stop-motion (photo-motion?) virtual hike of the length of the JMT. Six months later, I finally put it together in this video. Enjoy!

(Click on the image below to see the YouTube video)

JMT Video Title Frame

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Day 15 – Can You Take Me Higher? (Boom Shacka Lacka Lacka)

September 4
Miles 205 – 211 (plus 11 down to Whitney Portal)

One last sleepless night. At 2:30 I decide that I have had enough tossing and turning and it is close enough to my planned 3 am wake-up.  I have only six miles and 3,000 feet up to the top of Mt. Whitney and the end of the JMT.  And I am excited. I extricate myself from my tent one last time and quietly stow away my gear. There are a few headlamps bobbing around guitar lake from others who are doing the same. And there are a few already weaving up the switchbacks above the lake. I have a Cliff bar for breakfast and I’m hiking by 3 am.    As I mentioned yesterday, I won’t have another water source for 10 miles, so I’m loaded with as much water as I can carry.  Two and a half quarts (about 5 pounds). I can feel the additional weight as I begin the ascent. I’m slow. Slower than usual. Fitter, younger hikers blow by me all morning. When I started, there were about 3 headlamps on the trail above me. By the time I am near the top there are about 10 ahead of me.

It is sometimes difficult to stay on the trail in the dark. I have to stop and swing my headlamp around occasionally to make sure I’m not about to follow a drainage ditch off into the black oblivion.  The moon has set and the sky is full of stars. I look up occasionally to savor the view. They are so crisp, so clear…so clean. When will I see the Milky Way again?

I check the map periodically and guess as to where I am and how many more switchbacks I have to go. The air is thin and getting thinner. My breathing is quick and my footsteps slow and methodical. I finally make the three miles to the trail junction (the trail that takes you the last 2 miles to the summit) at around 5:30. There I ditch my pack (I’ll pick it up on the way down), grab a few things I’ll need for the summit, filter water (from a “dirty” bottle to my “clean” one), and before I know it it is 6 am. As I make my way toward the summit I am feeling super light without the burden if my pack. But, there is still the issue of the thinning air and my breathing is still laborious with an audible wheeze. At one point a hiker is coming down and I give the standard “good morning”,but the words barely come out in a rasp that sounds a bit like an aging Kathleen Turner after a smoke break.

Almost there

Trail junction…1.9 miles to go (actually took this on the way back down…when it was light)

I stop at the “windows” (keyhole breaks along the ridge that look down into the Owens Valley) and as I had hoped, I have cell reception. First I text my wife. Later I look and see I have a voicemail from her. I stop and listen. Then it occurs to me…duh, I can call her! It’s nice to hear her voice and to share the view with her as the sun begins to change the sky into a multitude of colors. I don’t make it to the top before the sun rises, but I didn’t expect to. It is beautiful to see the sun squeezing above the horizon, lighting up the eastern faces of the mountain tops which cast shadows onto the western ridges beyond. Working from the horizon up, the western sky goes from purple to orange to yellow to blue.

The western sky at dawn

The western sky at dawn

IMG_1220_edited-1

Sunrise through a window

Sunrise over Mt. Hitchcock

Sunrise over Mt. Hitchcock

I continue on the final mile to the top thinking about the final steps of my journey.  I imagine what it will be like to pass the stone shelter and take the last few steps to the top of Whitney and the end of the trail. Tears begin to drip down my cheeks. It is an emotional experience. I am mostly filled with joy and pride. I fucking did it!  I am a bad…ass…mother…fucker…even with the tears. But there is also a little sadness at reaching the end. As a blogger I have been following (Carrot Quinn) would put it, “thru-hiking will break your heart.”  The journey is almost over…then what?

The weird thing is that when I actually reach the top, when I actually take those final steps,  it is strangely unemotional. As cliche as it sounds, it was not the destination that was driving my emotions, it was the journey. It was the 15 days in the wilderness. It was being surrounded by unimaginable beauty. It was the struggle and the endurance. It was not just the final step, but every step.

At the top, as I had planned, I hand my iPhone to another hiker to capture some video of me channeling my inner Walt Whitman as I “sound my barbaric YAWP!”.  A sound that means nothing.  A sound that means everything.  Today, I feel like a fucking barbarian god!  Yes, it was a little dorky, but it made me feel good (and it got a chuckle out of the other hikers at the summit). Here’s a link to the video:  YAWP!!!

Top o' the world, Ma!

Top o’ the world, Ma!

Me and my shadow.  Top of Mt. Whitney.

Me and my shadow. Top of Mt. Whitney.

Mt. Hitchcock on Hitchcock lakes

Mt. Hitchcock, Hitchcock Lakes, and Guitar Lake

The aptly named Guitar Lake

The aptly named Guitar Lake

Trail Crest pano

Trail Crest pano

Hitchcock Lakes and the Great Western Divide

Hitchcock Lakes and the Great Western Divide (from Trail Crest)

I hung for a while at the top chatting with the other hikers, taking photos, and watching the sun climb higher.  Well, it’s over…so, what the hell do I do now?  I guess I go down. 11 miles and 6,200 feet down. I sign the log with my name, my trail name (Zpack), city, and one word…”YAWP!”.  Then I head back to the trail junction where I pick up my pack and head down the infamous and monotonous 99 switchbacks down to trail camp. Fatigue is starting to kick in. The next couple miles of trail is some of the worst I’d seen on the entire journey. Big steps. Uneven, jagged rocks.  I have to be careful where I place every footfall and the trail is just brutal on my knees and feet. Then it descends to more switchbacks and the cruelest sight…a black ribbon snaking up from the Owens Valley below…it is a road! I haven’t seen one since Red’s Meadow, 170 miles ago. But, the sight of the road is not cruel because it signifies the end of my journey.  It is cruel because it is close, but not close enough!  You know what’s at the end of that road? Whitney Portal. And you know what’s at Whitney Portal?  The burger and beer I have been dreaming about for miles! It is the force, stronger than gravity itself, that pulls me down this mountain. Each tenth if a mile ticking off agonizingly slow. Suddenly I am filled with the desire to be done. Get me the fuck off of this mountain! Burger! Beer! But, before long my feet do touch asphalt. And it is over. Civilization begins to creep back into my life. It is strange and comforting and easy and overwhelming.

End of the line

End of the line

The place of burgers and beers

The place of burgers and beers

I order that burger, add the cold crisp lettuce and tomato, and savor every bite.  And I wash it down with a Lagunitas IPA.  And I am in heaven…

Just desserts...

The stuff dreams are made of!

I hitch a ride into Lone Pine with a woman traveling alone.  She seems uneasy and when she jokingly asks me, I assure her that I am not a serial killer (despite my appearance…and smell).

At my motel, I stand in the shower and watch the dirt run down the drain as the soap and water begin to strip layers of trail dirt off of my body. It feels so good that I repeat the process with a hot bath.  Soon, I am gloriously clean! I look at my body in the mirror. Bearded, sun damaged face and neck (despite the sunscreen and bandana draped under my hat), hair worn off of my calves and inner highs, noticeably thinner,but still flawed. How many more miles…how many more hours of walking would it take to lose the man boobs and see some abdominal muscles, I wonder?

The motel has a laundromat, and I wash everything.  I wear my rain jacket and wear a towel around my waist like a skirt as I make my way to and from the laundromat.  Feeling a little awkward as I walk past the guests hanging out by the pool…

My brother-in-law has very generously driven up from San Diego and will drive me to LAX in the morning for my flight back to Virginia.  We head into town for pizza and a salad.  Looks like my appetite is back. He asks about the hike and it’s weird, but it is difficult for me to put it into words.  I don’t have any harrowing tales of mountain storms or bear attacks or life-threatening experiences.  I feel like I could talk about the trip for hours with someone else who has been there.  But, I find it difficult to share the experiences I had in a meaningful way with those who have not been.  How many different ways can I say “It was awesome!”?

Back at the motel, I watch a little TV in the bed…just because I can. And then…sweet Jesus…I sleep! Good, hard sleep. The first I have had in weeks.

Mt. Whitney (on the right).  11,000 feet above the Owens Valley.

The view from my motel.  11,000 feet below the summit of Mt. Whitney (on the right).

Day 14 – Feets Don’t Fail Me Now

September 3
Miles 194 – 205

It seems cold his morning and I’m slow to rise. But, I know I only have 11 miles to go today, so what’s the rush?  I doze for a while and finally get up at 6:45 (late for me).  It’s 39 degrees. Not frigid, but colder than most mornings. Oatmeal, raisins, coffee, filter water, break camp, and I’m on the trail at 8:15.

For the first several miles I wind my way through dry forests and up and down small ridges. Some of the uphill stretches are steep though and around 11,000 feet in elevation. So, even a short climb leaves me winded. I go slow. My left foot is still painful.  And I still have to walk on the ball of my foot to keep the pain bearable. The 4 ibuprofen I popped this morning help as well.  And, like yesterday, it is on the flats where I suffer the most pain.  I get passed left and right all morning by people who hike at average speed. Oh well, it’s a short day and I can take my time.

Bighorn plateau is awesome! It is desolate and barren except for a few dead foxtail pines. And it is surrounded by 360 degree views of the Great Western Divide to the west, the Kings Kern Divide to the north, Kern Canyon to the southwest, and the first good views of Mt Whitney to the southeast.  I can’t resist stopping to take some pictures. The foxtail pines are twisted and colorful works of art…especially the dead ones. And they easily distract me as I go down the trail.

Foxtail pine...a twisted work of art

Foxtail pine…a twisted work of art

Approaching Bighorn Plateau looking toward the Great Western Divide

Approaching Bighorn Plateau looking toward the Great Western Divide

The moonscape of Bighorn Plateau

The moonscape of Bighorn Plateau

First good views of Mt. Whitney from Bighorn Plateau

First good views of Mt. Whitney from Bighorn Plateau

Just some trail beauty...

Just some trail beauty…

Foxtail

Foxtail

Around mid-day I reach Crabtree Junction where I plan to have lunch. And I hear there is a pit toilet here. After this point I have to use my WAG bag if I have to “take care of business”. In other words, I have to poop in a bag and carry it out. I can’t let that happen! I eat lunch, have a cup of coffee and take my time. And soon the “wheels are in motion”. So, I mosey over to the “business center”. It is an outhouse like no other. There is a seat and two walls on either side about three feet high to provide partial privacy. Anyone approaching would see the top of your body above the walls. The front is wide open…a poop with a view! So, with that taken care of, I’m hopeful that I can make it another 24 hours to Whitney Portal without need of the WAG bag…the horror, the horror…

A poop with a view! Crabtree Junction.

A poop with a view! Crabtree Junction.

I’m feeling energized from lunch and the hike up to Guitar Lake was no problem. The views of Whitney as I move up the valley make me smile. I can’t believe I have reached her!

 

Mt. Whitney from Timberline Lake

Mt. Whitney from Timberline Lake

Mt. Whitney from Timberline Lake

Mt. Whitney from Timberline Lake

Guitar lake is crowded. It’s late afternoon and every site I come to is already taken.  I round a large boulder to find the ass cheeks a woman squatting behind it…I turn my head and keep walking hoping to avoid embarrassment for either of us.  I hope she was only peeing, but I can’t help but wonder if she is contributing to the problem they have here…people ignoring their wag bags and just dumping on the ground instead.  The soil is rocky here and we are above treeline, so there is little soil or sand, which makes burial difficult.  Apparently not everyone follows my plan of using the pit toilet at Crabtree and holding it for the rest of the trip!  I finally find a narrow, slightly sloping spot at the far end of the lake that is just big enough for my one-person tent.

Last camp just below Mt. Whitney at Guitar Lake

Squeezing between a rock and a hard place…  Last camp just below Mt. Whitney at Guitar Lake

I eat my last dinner, which consists of rehydrated hummus in a tortilla.  It makes me gag and I just can’t force myself to finish it.  I am so ready for real food again!  This trip has been a lesson in what to bring and what not to bring on a long-distance hike.  Next time, more tuna, jerky, candy bars, pro bars, chips, and Knorr pasta sides.  Less refried beans, hummus, energy gel, peanut butter, nutella, and tortillas.

There is so little food left in my bear canister…which means my pack is so light!  I bet it weighs around 20 pounds right now.  But, tomorrow I have to go about 10 miles until my next water source, so I’ll have to fill all of my water containers…about 2.5 quarts (including my leaking squeeze bag). So, my pack weight will probably be around 26 pounds in the morning with all that water.

I watch the sun set behind the Sierras one more time and crawl into my bag soon after.  I’m going to try to be near the top of Whitney for sunrise tomorrow, so I set my alarm for 3am.  And I can’t wait for it to wake me! The summit beckons!

Mt. Whitney from Guitar Lake

Mt. Whitney is calling…and I must go!

Day 13 – Taste the Pain

September 2
Miles 180 – 194

I wake with the sorest feet of the hike so far.  Every step around camp is painful.  It feels like the balls of both feet are bruised and I can’t put any pressure on the heel of my left foot.   I think I may have overdone it the past two days rushing down Pinchot and Glen Passes. And now my feet are rebelling. I pop 4 ibuprofen and that seems to temper the pain, but not much.

Today will be another tough day with lots of elevation change.  I start with a 1,000 foot descent into Vidette Meadow and then climb 3,600 feet up the valley to Forester Pass before descending 2,400 feet to my planned campsite along Tyndall Creek.  And Forester is at 13,200 feet, the highest pass on the PCT and JMT and a thousand feet higher than I have ever climbed.

After oatmeal and coffee I’m hiking by 7:40.  Not sure if it is the ibuprofen or maybe my feet have just gone numb, but I spend the morning cruising.   But, by late morning my left foot becomes more and more painful. I have severe pain from the heel through the arch…plantar faciitis.  Damn it!  I experienced this problem for the first time in my life last fall and it left me hobbling around for three weeks.  I tried so hard over the last year to train and did everything I could to try to keep it from coming back, but here it is.  I have to change my gait. I walk more on the ball and outer edge of my left foot and my pace slows.  Heel, toe…toe.  Heel, toe…toe.  Heel, toe…toe.  It is awkward.  And I still have 40 miles to Whitney Portal.

It’s weird…it’s most painful on the flats. Going uphill you just plant your foot and use your glutes and quads to lift. Going downhill you use your glutes and quads to minimize the impact as gravity pulls you down. But on the flats, it’s heel, toe, push. I can’t land on my left heel and I can’t push off with my left toes. I can only plant the ball of my foot and move a bit like someone with an artificial leg.  No more cruising for me.  I limp towards Whitney like Ahab toward the White Whale. “Moby Dick seeks thee not. It is thou, thou, that madly seekest him!” – Herman Melville

Heading down to Vidette Meadow.  East Vidette peak shining in the morning sun.

Heading down to Vidette Meadow. East Vidette peak shining in the morning sun.

The climb up Forester is steep, but manageable. Nicely graded and not too many big granite steps.  Those are the killers for me.  I’ll take a steep steady incline any day over steps!  I pass out of the trees above 11,500 feet or so and it is like walking on the moon. Completely desolate, surrounded by granite and peaks that likely exceed 14,000 feet. Some snow still lingers in a few spots on the north side of  the peaks.

Heading up Center Basin on the climb to Forester Pass

Heading up Center Basin on the climb to Forester Pass

I have lunch at a greenish blue lake 900 feet below the pass. Pop a couple more ibuprofen as my foot has become increasingly painful. I feel so tired. Not exhausted, but sleepy.  And I stumble a bit on the rocks. I think it is the thin air.  Or could it be the early signs of AMS?  Maybe, but thankfully I’m not showing any severe signs. I’ve acclimatized well.

Lunch break just below Forester Pass

Lunch break just below Forester Pass (the low spot on the right)

The last 900 feet isn’t so bad. Again, it’s a nice steady grade and I’m at the pass before I know it. There is weak cell reception and I am able to get texts out to my family.  This is the first communication I have been able to get out since I was at MTR five days ago.  I wait 30 minutes or so, but no response from my wife again. I’m sad that every time I have cell service or internet it seems that she is busy or the kids have the phone. But the windows of opportunity are so narrow and unpredictable. Probably won’t have cell service again for two days (top of Whitney).

Looking back from the top of Forester Pass

Looking back from the top of Forester Pass

Looking ahead through the notch at the top of Forester Pass

Looking ahead through the notch at the top of Forester Pass

The descent down the other side of Forester is along a section of trail that is another amazing feat of engineering.  It switchbacks its way down the steep rock face hugging the side of the mountain.  The views over the basin below are breathtaking.

The basin on the south side of Forester Pass

The basin on the south side of Forester Pass

I still have over 4 miles to hike to the nearest campsite with water.  The first two miles are ok, but the last two are extremely uncomfortable. My foot gets worse with each passing mile (or the drugs are wearing off!).   I hope another night’s rest will help.  And tomorrow is only an 11 mile day, so I’m hopeful that my foot will be well enough to complete the hike.  There isn’t really a viable bailout point now anyway…except by helicopter.  Heel, toe…toe.  Heel, toe…toe…

The campsite is packed and I have to wander for a while to finally find an open space that isn’t right on top of other campsites. I guess it is so popular because it is the first one after the pass (or the last one before the pass for the northbounders).  To make matters worse, the creek is lined with bushes and not very accessible.  If my feet were in better shape I would have gone another half mile to the next campsites.  But, this is as far as my feet are willing to take me today.

My solar charger gets my iPhone battery up to 44% tonight.  Crossing my fingers for two more sunny days!

Day 12 – One Bad Motha… (I’m just talkin’ about Glen Pass)

September 1
Miles 165 – 180

I camped next to a small bog last night.  I guess that is what you would call it?  It is surrounded by spongy, soggy, mossy soil and there are small bubbles coming up from the water occasionally as if they are gasses from the decaying things at the bottom.  Regardless of whether it was a bog, it is the perfect body of water to reflect the red painted mountains at sunrise.  I spend a lot of time with pictures this morning and don’t get on the trail until 8 am.

Sunrise

Sunrise

Just something I saw one morning...

Just something I saw one morning…

Boggy reflections

Boggy reflections

Camp here...take nice sunrise pics...

Camp here…take nice sunrise pics…

The first four miles are a steep 2,000 ft drop. Again, I keep my eye out for bighorn sheep, but again…nothing. Though, I think I may have seen their tracks on the trail. They were a bit wider and less pointed than typical deer tracks.  As I make my way down the valley I come across the first foxtail pines along the trail.  I love these trees!  Old twisted, gnarled, colorful giants spinning their way in a tortured existence toward the blue sky.  They are the trees of photographs.  Close up or far away, black and white or color…it is so easy to find contrast and texture.

Love me some foxtail pines!

Love me some foxtail pines!

At the bottom of the descent I come to the famous suspension bridge crossing Woods Creek, dubbed the “Golden Gate of the Sierras”. There are signs indicating that only one person is permitted on the bridge at a time.  I walk out and it isn’t that bad…until it starts to wobble…and pitch…and then I notice the missing planks!  Holy crap!  Sketch!  How did those boards break?!  And why should I think the board right next to it won’t suffer the same fate and send me plunging 15 feet to the rocks and the creek below?!  But, the boards hold me and I get to the other side where I take a break and watch the entertainment as other hikers cross asking themselves the same questions I did.  One woman took about 5 minutes to cross it as she gripped the cables and slid her hands along ever so slowly.

The Golden Gate of the Sierras

The Golden Gate of the Sierras

After my break, I begin the climb to Glen Pass, 3,500 feet up.  That is more elevation gain than I had climbing both Mather and Pinchot yesterday.  And it is hot today…brutally hot…and there is very little shade.  By the time I climb the first 1,600 feet to Dollar Lake I am drenched in sweat and totally exhausted.  I stop here for lunch.  My new favorite trail lunch…a tuna and mayo wrap.  I underestimated how satisfying this lunch is…wish I brought more!  While at the lake, I back-washed my water filter in hopes that it might clean it somewhat and speed up the filtering process….to no avail.  It takes about five minutes to filter a quart of water.  And I do that 4 to 7 times a day…that’s 30 minutes of each day just filtering water!  So tedious and it makes it harder to get my miles in.  I hope the filter doesn’t get worse…just needs to last me three more days.

After lunch I continue on and reach Rea Lakes.  They are ringed in crystal clear light blue water and absolutely beautiful.  Originally I had planned to camp here, and I considered it again today especially when I saw some other hikers jumping off a rock into the water.  It was 4:30 and I still had a grueling 2 mile climb over Glen Pass and close to 3 miles down the other side to my newly planned destination.  I could just stay here…hang out by the lake, relax, swim, play…but, that would mean that I couldn’t summit Forester Pass tomorrow and would mean that I would have to put in 20 miles the following day.  That is why I pushed yesterday and why I am pushing today…so I can get over Forester Pass tomorrow and avoid that 20 mile day.  No time to play…I have to push on.  I do the math in my head…could take me two hours to climb to the top of Glen, then another hour to an hour and a half down the other side…it could be 8 pm and dark by the time I reach camp.  Ugh…time to push it, dude!!!

JMT "fauna".

JMT “fauna”.

Upper Rae Lake and the Painted Lady

Upper Rae Lake and the Painted Lady

The Painted Lady over Upper Rae Lake

The Painted Lady over Upper Rae Lake

The Painted Lady

The Painted Lady

The climb up Glen Pass is rocky, steep, and barren, but I make ok time. I am at the top at 6:15. A few minutes for pics and I chat with another hiker from Korea who is waiting at the top for his friend, then it’s time to boogie down the other side.  My feet are killing me, but I try to go as fast as I can…even breaking into a light jog a couple times, but my feet just hurt too much to keep it up for long.  My plantar fasciitis may be rearing its ugly head…  I reach my campsite at 7:35. Rush to clean up a bit, set up camp, filter water, and eat ramen noodles in the dark (again).

From the top of Glen Pass looking back toward Rae Lakes

From the top of Glen Pass looking back toward Rae Lakes

Top of Glen Pass looking east

Top of Glen Pass looking east

I continue to worry about my iPhone charge.  I’m using about 30% each day, but only getting about 20% of a recharge from my solar charger after it has been in heavy sunlight all day.  After charging tonight, my battery is back up to only about a 50% charge.  At this rate my battery could die on the last day.

Day 11 – Two’fer

August 31
Miles 149 – 165

Had a surprisingly decent night’s sleep last night.  Though I did wake to the sound of plastic rustling a few inches away from my head. My first thought was that it was just the wind blowing my polycro groundsheet…but then a frightening thought entered my mind.  I forgot to empty the snacks out of the shoulder straps of my pack which was just outside the door of my tent!  Some varmint was munching on my Cheddar Combos!  I banged the side of the tent to scare the critter away then unzipped the door and grabbed the snacks.  I wasn’t going to go through all the effort it would have taken to put them in the bear canister, so I just slept with them inside my sleeping bag.  I inspected them in the morning and, sure enough, there was a hole in the zip-lock bag and little teeth marks in my Combos.  Little bastards!  That reminds me…I forgot to mention that I found food in the bottom of my pack yesterday that had been there since MTR. So lucky I found that yesterday or I might have been dealing with a hole in my pack this morning instead of just a few lost Combos!

Varmints!

Varmints!

Today I plan to conquer the Mather/Pinchot challenge.  That is, to climb over both Mather Pass and Pinchot Pass in the same day.  The passes are only 10 miles apart, but including the climb up Mather and the descent down the other side of Pinchot it will be a 16 mile day.  I’ll have about 3,300 feet in elevation to climb and descend today, both passes are over 12,000 feet, and I’ll have to do one of them in the late afternoon (when my energy is drained).  Game on!

The hike up to Mather Pass is beautiful.  The sun makes its way down the western wall of the valley and the granite peaks and boulder fields are brilliant.  But, the trail stays almost entirely in the morning shade provided by the mountain walls to the east.  Frost is still on the grass that comes up in clumps along the lower parts of the trail.  The crisp morning air is fantastic.  So, despite the steep ascent it wasn’t that grueling and before I know it I’m on top of my first pass of the day.  The minister and I leap-frogged up the trail and we summit together.  He tells me that this is the only pass of the JMT that he had not climbed before on other section hikes.  We take summit pictures of each other.  I’m glad to share the summit experience with someone else.

The climb up to Mather Pass in the morning shade

The climb up to Mather Pass in the morning shade

Looking back toward Palisade Lakes from the top of Mather Pass

Looking back toward Palisade Lakes from the top of Mather Pass

The switchbacks on the back side of Mather are cool!  Of course, the trail is above treeline.  So, as you descend, you can see the trail snaking its way down from the pass and then stretching out for a couple of miles through the desolate beauty of the Upper Basin.

Top of Mather Pass looking out over the Upper Basin

Top of Mather Pass looking out over the Upper Basin

Moving across the Upper Basin

Moving across the Upper Basin

In the basin, I pass a couple from Lake Tahoe who are section hiking a portion of the JMT. They are super friendly and outgoing and truly interested in my story (as I am in theirs). I love the hiker community. Yes there are weirdos too, but many are just happy down to earth people with a like-minded appreciation for things wild.  And I wish I knew more of them.

After descending the 2,000 feet down from Mather, I begin the 2,000 foot climb to Pinchot around mid-day.  The first part of the ascent is brutally steep and I am longing for a break.  After a couple of miles the trail levels out a bit and I find a small unnamed lake a short distance off the trail where I take a skinny dip and wash some clothes and make lunch (instant hummus and hot sauce wrap).  After a leisurely break, I head back to the trail which, to my surprise, winds back around to the far side of the lake I was just skinny dipping in.  Guess it wasn’t quite as secluded as I thought!

Around 5 pm I pass Lake Marjorie where I had planned to camp on my original itinerary.  But, on my new itinerary I still have 5 more miles to go before I sleep.  At the lake I hear what sounds like someone calling my name.  I look around and it’s the minister (who I leap-frogged with all day) standing in front of his tent about 100 feet off-trail.

“Are you going to go for it?”, he calls (I had discussed my plan with him earlier in the day to summit both passes.)

“Yes!”

“Good luck! And God bless!”

I hesitate, then “You too!”  What are you going to do?  Life is too short to question the existence of God with hiking ministers…  Actually, he was a really nice man and I truly wish him well.  I’ve seen him quite a bit over the last couple of days, but since he is finishing the day after me I won’t see him for the rest of the trip.

The guide books say that I am entering a section of the Sierras that is home to Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep. I keep an eye out for them, but nothing.  Of course, finding grey animals among grey rocks from hundreds of yards away is not easy!

Unnamed jewel of a lake just below Pinchot Pass

Unnamed jewel of a lake just below Pinchot Pass

I am alone when I reach the top of Pinchot Pass at 6 pm.  The view is amazing.  The peaks around this pass appear to have some volcanic geology to them.  They are jagged and multicolored, but heavily tinted with red.  And the red is getting lit up by the sun as it gets lower in the sky.  But, that means that the shadows are getting long as well and I have to hustle to go another 2.5 miles to get to my campsite before I run out of daylight.  On smooth sections of trail with a slight downgrade I even breakout into a jog.

Top of Pinchot as the shadows lenghthen

An evening on top of Pinchot

Looking back over Lake Marjorie from the top of Pinchot Pass

Looking back over Lake Marjorie from the top of Pinchot Pass

Looking southeast from the top of Pinchot Pass in the lengthening shadows of the setting sun.

Looking southeast from the top of Pinchot Pass in the lengthening shadows of the setting sun.

I reach my campsite and quickly pitch camp and take care of the normal chores.  Oddly, there is a green doormat at my campsite.  I am annoyed that someone would leave trash like this behind (not to mention that they would bring it in the first place?).  But, I decide to use it…and I have to admit that I have a deluxe entryway into my tent tonight with a nice clean place to put my pack under the vestibule of my tent!

Ate dinner in the dark.  Starting to run low on dinner options.  Tonight was salami, parmesan cheese, and BBQ sauce in a tortilla.

I didn’t get much juice from my solar charger today.  Starting to get a little concerned that I may need to ration my iPhone use. Like my toilet paper supply…it’s going to be close!

The Mather/Pinchot challenge wasn’t so bad.  But, it was still a long day.  So, so tired tonight…

Day 10 – Stairway!

August 30
Miles 136 – 149

Another sleepless night. Tossed and turned as usual.  No help from the Benadryl.  I hear the San Diegans stirring early, but I linger in my tent.  No rush for me…I only have 13 miles to go today.  I finally emerge from my nylon chrysalis as the San Diegans are heading out.  They say they may stop at Upper Palisade Lake depending on how they feel at that point.  But, they are going to try to make it over Mather and shoot for an 18 mile day.  If they go for 18, I probably won’t see them again since they are planning to summit Whitney the day before me.

After my usual slow start breaking camp, I hike alone down LeConte canyon. It is beautiful.  This is one section of the trail that I didn’t expect much from.  I’ve seen the pictures on other blogs and was always underwhelmed.  But to be here and actually see it with my own eyes is entirely different.  The cascading river, the peaceful meadows, the steep granite peaks…the pictures do not do it justice.  Grouse Meadow was especially picturesque.

Grouse Meadow

Grouse Meadow

Grouse Meadow

Grouse Meadow

Looking back up LeConte Canyon

Looking back up LeConte Canyon

The canyon descends for a few miles then turns up a side valley and follows Palisade Creek up toward the Golden Staircase and eventually Mather Pass.  At the trail junction, I stop to wash my feet in the frigid water of Palisade Creek and have a snack.  All the while, a deer watches me suspiciously.  I linger longer than I should, but again…I don’t have far to go today, so I can afford some wasted time.  The trail up the valley meanders through pine and aspen forests and a burn.  It gets more beautiful the further up the valley I go.  Waterfalls cascade down both sides of the valley and I can hear the clamor of the water as it spills over the rocks.  The smell of the aspens and the rush of the water lulls me into a peaceful trance…which is broken when I nearly jump out of my socks to avoid stepping on the 3 foot black snake that slips across the trail in front of me.  Ok…I’m awake now!

The golden staircase is amazing. This was the last section of the JMT to be completed and it is apparent that it took a feat of engineering to twist and bend and hang this trail on the side of this narrow, steep notch.  But, it is not just the engineering that amazes me, it is more so the views.  Like the beauty of LeConte Canyon, I didn’t expect this either.  In my pre-hike planning I had read about the grueling hike up the staircase, but I don’t remember reading anything about the views.  I almost feel like I am in Switzerland…or, at least, what I imagine Switzerland to be, since I’ve never been.  All around I am surrounded by both jagged and smoothed granite mountains.  They rise steeply in front and to my left and right.  And when I turn around, I see the green forested valley stretching out below culminating in a wall rising on the other side of LeConte Canyon to the serrated crest of the Black Divide cutting across the horizon. The setting brings tears to my eyes…again.  I feel so happy and fortunate to be in the presence of such unfathomable beauty and grandeur.  I feel so small in this massive place.  I don’t know…should I be embarrassed by those tears?  Do these emotions make me “less of a man”?  The answer, of course, is “No”.  I am not embarrassed.  And I am comfortable with the man that I am.  I have never and will never allow myself to hide behind a phony wall of machismo.  And I feel sorry for those who do.

Looking back towards the Black Divide from the Golden Staircase

Looking back towards the Black Divide from below the Golden Staircase

Looking back towards the Black Divide from the Golden Staircase

Looking back towards the Black Divide from the Golden Staircase

The switchbacks of the Golden Staircase

The switchbacks of the Golden Staircase

My thoughts turn to my daughter.  Her middle name was inspired by my love of these mountains.  I feel at home here.  The Sierras are so beautiful and bring me so much joy…just like my Kate Sierra.

As I reach the top of the Golden Staircase, I enter another brilliant valley.  The valley greets me with exquisite views of yet another serrated crest rising 3,000 feet above the trail.  The glaciated U shaped valley is adorned with the Palisade Lakes and their turquoise waters and lined with stark white granite peaks leading to 12,100 foot Mather Pass.

Above the Golden Staircase.  Palisade Crest.

Above the Golden Staircase. Palisade Crest.

I reach Upper Palisade Lake (my planned stopping point) around 6 pm.  No sign of the San Diegans…looks like they decided to push over Mather Pass.  Damn!  They were such a great group and I had hoped to hang out with them one more night before separating tomorrow.

Above Upper Palisade Lake looking up at Mather Pass

Above Upper Palisade Lake looking up at Mather Pass

I make camp near a creek on an exposed ledge a couple hundred feed above the lake. The winds blow steady and strong in this exposed site and I have to guy out my tent to keep it anchored to the ground.  The sun has not yet slipped behind the the far wall of the valley, so while I still have the warmth of the sun I strip off my clothes and scrub the trail grit from my body in a secluded plunge pool in the nearby creek.  I also take the opportunity to wash my socks and underwear. I string up a clothesline and by sundown my clothes are blown dry (mostly).

Upper Palisade Lake camp.  Mather Pass in the background

Upper Palisade Lake camp. Mather Pass in the background

I have a big day planned for tomorrow, so I try to eat my heavier food items to lighten the load from my pack.  Tomorrow’s plan to summit both Mather and Pinchot passes en route to a 16 mile day.  There is another solo hiker camping nearby and he comes over and introduces himself.  We chat while we try to warm ourselves with dinners and hot drinks while the light fades from the valley.  He is a 64 year-old minister.  Tells me he has scaled Mt. Whitney 18 times with his underprivileged youth groups and he has section hiked several parts of the JMT, but this is his first thru-hike.  On the surface, I wouldn’t think I have much in common with a 64 year-old minister (religion ain’t really my bag…).  But, the minister was alright.  Down to earth…kind…and he was thru-hiking the JMT, so at least we had that in common!  64 and thru-hiking the JMT…it’s encouraging to see an old-timer still getting it done!

The stars begin to pierce the black veil and it is time to slip into my nylon cocoon.  The wind dies down a bit after sunset, but full thermals will be needed tonight to ward off the cold.