The John Muir Trail is one of the most scenic trails in the world. For those of us living in California, we are very lucky to have this wonderful scenery right in our own backyard. Many years ago, in the early 70's, Louise began a through-hike of the trail but was side-tracked by the easy access to so many of the high peaks lining the crest. Then in 2002, she had a chance to hike the PCT portion that mostly corresponds to the JMT with friend Kristina. Clearly husband Jim would also like to hike the trail.
The history of how this trip came about is a bit long and convoluted. Our daughter Mary was planning to hike with her good friend David from Yosemite to Mt. Whitney, starting Friday July 29. I was not working but my husband Jim was. At first he said we could not go until mid-August, but then I thought hiking the direction opposite to our daughter would provide some sort of logistic benefits.
At the last possible moment I sent my application for a PCT through-hike permit to go from Kennedy Meadows to the Oregon Border, which would include a sticker to climb Mt. Whitney from the PCT on August 6. At home I busily bought, cooked, and dried food, enough for 5-6 weeks on the trail. After receiving my permit I realized that we could not get to Whitney on the day of our permit if we started at Kennedy Meadows, so I tried to figure out an alternate roadhead.
A wild search of the Internet found Dr. Ben Jones, Major of Badwater, in Lone Pine. We were delighted to make contact and have Ben join us for our pre-hike festival dinner in Lone Pine. Ben shared his thoughts of doing a new low key Badwater run similar to what it was in the old days, including climbing Mt. Whitney! After dinner he drove us to Hosreshoe Meadow for the start of our adventure.
Rising early on Thursday August 5 we hiked quickly to Cottonwood Pass at 11160. We thought about the poor hiker who was attacked by a bear at Chicken Little Lake as we pumped water. We continued up past Siberia Pass and down to Rock Creek at 9550. Several troups of boy scouts were camped there. Rangers were studying the decayed log on which we crossed the creek as we nourished our bodies and pumped more water. We continued up to the pass below Mt. Guyot where we met and chatted with Rob Pelewsky, the ranger from Crabtree Meadow. We found a mutual acquantance, the avalanche forecaster for the state of Colorado with whom we had skied the High Sierra traverse in May.
Rob suggested a nice campsite with a view of the sunset on Mt. Whitney, a camp that we had all to ourselves and greatly enjoyed as we cooked our dinner on the alchohol stove our daughter made for us. It worked! After sunset we snoozed - what else can you do? - until dawn. We ate quickly, boxed our food, and hung our gear to hike up Mt. Whitney. It was a spectacular day! From the notch near Keeler Needle, we updated the Jones' about our progress. The car we left with them would be our daughter's transportation back to Yosemite at the end of her hike.
Upon returning from the mountain we found our "private" campsite had been invaded by numerous parties. Happily we packed up and hiked to Wallace Creek. It was too early to camp so we continued across Big Horn Plateau with great views of the Great Western Divide
all the way to Tyndall Creek, enjoying memories of our spring Tyndall ski camp with Dave Beck and our encounter with Goldy from Jackson Wyoming. A bear box by the trail was a pleasant sight as darkness was very near. Another quick dinner from our alchohol stove left us ready for welcome sleep. We woke only briefly in the night to the sounds of a bear trying unsuccessfully to get into the nearby food locker.
The morning brought the excitement of our big day. We planned to cross Forester Pass and Glen Pass, some of the prettiest part of the JMT/PCT. We amused ourselves with recollections of our spring ski trip as we hiked to the top of Forester Pass through the spectacular alpine scenery. The Kaweahs loomed in the distance while we eyed the tiny notch on the shoulder of Milestone where we had skied across the Great Western Divide. The trail swept easily down Bubbs Creek with familiar Kearsarge Pinnacles above. We crossed the creek and stared back at the magnificent Videttes as we climbed toward Glen Pass. Charlotte Lake, surrounded by spectacular blue, green and teal colors, reflected the late afternoon sun.
Glen Pass was elusive. We kept hiking but it did not appear. Finally we found the last grade to the pass. Hikers coming down appeared to be ready for the emergency room of the local hospital - what terrible physiques! The Rae Lakes campsite with the food lockers was popular for many people, including some young fellows who caught many yummy fish for their dinner. We enjoyed pea soup and a fancy pork and peanut stew dinner before crawling into our bivy sacks for the night.
The next day I was excited. We should pass our daughter mid-afternoon, if all went as planned. On down to the amazing suspension bridge at Woods Creek and up the delightful trail along the creek toward Sawmill and Pinchot Pass. Several fine young men coming down the trail insisted that we take our right of way and continue hiking uphill up while they waited. The high alpine meadows were spectacular. Thinking we had much time to spare, we ate a leisurely lunch enjoying the great views. Alas the pass was much further along than we figured. Every pass seems to be much harder and longer than one can imagine!
Finally we are over and scurry down to the South Fork of the Kings River. We should be encountering Mary any moment. I had figured 3 pm on August 8. We continue, looking all about us in case she has decided to camp early. After numerous successful stream crossings, one step on a rickety rock sent me sprawling into a side creek. Oh well, one must have a full experience of the trail. The sun was getting lower and I was tiring, wishing to camp. We will not get over Mather Pass before dark. Finally Jim is willing to camp below the pass by a high lake. We set out our bivy sacks and start making dinner. Jim says, "Look, some hikers coming from the pass." It is Mary and David! We camp together and enjoy our perfect location as the morning sun hits us before any of the surrounding area. For breakfast I shared the only coffee I made on the trail as we spend several hours chatting about our trail experiences and the trip end logistics.
We parted company, but we are now behind schedule, a problem which will plague us for the rest of our hike to Tuolumne Meadows. We have a reservation for my birthday dinner on August 13 at Tuolumne Meadows High Sierra Camp, a long way from Mather Pass. The Palisade Lakes and especially their drainage are very beautiful. We stop for many photos. The trail down to the Middle Fork of the Kings River is very long and hot. A dip in the river is welcome relief. As we head on toward Muir Pass we know that the delight of our lightweight packs is about to end. Just beyond the Bishop Pass trail we will pick up our bear cannisters, adding 13 pounds to each of our packs, yuk!
The climb to Muir Pass with our heavy packs goes very slowly. Jim is having a problem with the altitude. I waited many times, not once thinking that taking some of his weight would help our pace. We finally pass Helen Lake, but the sun is very low. We should probably camp but Jim wants to go on. There is an old Russian proverb "In the arctic man is stupid." Clearly this applies to the mountains. I thought that maybe I should take water to the pass so that we could stay in the shelter, but stupidity prevailed and I did not fill our bottles. The last of the sunset was visible from the pass as we headed down for a long dark hike to water and the first campsite we could find.
After dinner I collapsed into deep sleep. Jim was less able to sleep on the hike, claiming he almost never slept. The next day Evolution Basin was pretty, but the trail became very long. My back had given me constant pain from muscle spasms which I attributed to a poorly fitting backpack. My thumbs were very tired from massaging the spinal erectors as I walked. This day my feet gave out. Blisters formed all over my feet for no good reason. At the wading crossing of the lower Evolution Creek we met a couple of ladies that knew Mary. They appeared to be impressed by our hike in spite of my fading condition. They gave me some muscle spasm and anti-inflamatory medicines to help my back.
Our hike continued, but I began to feel extremely sleepy and wanted to lie down next to the trail to sleep. I fought the urge and keep hiking - like a zombie. No doubt this was the effect of the back medicine. We paused at Piute Creek for food, water and sock washing, then continued up past Muir Trail Ranch toward Seldon Pass. A would-be ranger forced us to evacuate the first camp site we selected, as he claimed it was too close to the trail, the kind of site that these "terrible" JMT and PCT hikers were using. Though we just planned to lay out our bags and sleep, not using the existing fire ring or any other amenities, he took us to another spot far from the trail that he said was an ancient Piute campsite. Clearly the moles and the natural vegetation had made it a terribly uncomfortable camp since those early days. We finally moved to a smooth spot that the horse people had clearly used many times.
The lakes and pass were very pretty. We descended to Bear Creek Trail, wondering about how the trail got its name, and continued to the forested switchbacks above Lake Edison and the VVR ferry, which we did not plan to use. Mono Creek provided a welcome bath. Little did I know another hiker, Robin, the only other we saw going our way, was a short way behind. We happily hiked with her for several miles until she outpaced us.
Camp below Silver Pass was a delightful boudoir tucked in some trees, reminiscent of a similar one last spring on the backside of Milestone. Another couple was on their annual hike of this area, their favorite. The next day we followed Robin up the pass and trailed her all the way into Red's Meadow. At this point we have one day and about 37 miles to get to Tuolumne Meadows for my birthday dinner. Impossible?
We checked at the store whether we could leave our packs in order to run the next portion of the trail. Yes, maybe it would work! We bedded down in the thru-hikers campsite near the hot-spring showers. Departure in the morning awaited the opening of the store at 7 am, but finally we were off. We took the JMT this time, which was more difficult than the PCT which we had done a couple years earlier. Storms brewed everywhere. We had hail, rain, lightening then intant thunder, without the usual several second delay! We let the storm pass before continuing.
At 5 pm we reached Donahue Pass. I phoned the Tuolumne Lodge to try for a room for the night. They had one! Wow, what luck! We had no sleeping gear. We had no idea if Mary would get any of our many messages to pick up our gear at Red's Meadow on her way to Tuolumne Meadows for the birthday dinner. On the phone I also ordered dinner since our arrival would be after the kitchen closed.
The descent went fast; my feet were moving quickly and precisely across slippery rocks, not something I could have done a week earlier. But we were not fast enough. Darkness caught us a couple miles from the end. We struggled past and sometimes through large puddles to the lodge, arriving at 9 pm. Miraculously they seated us for our steak dinner. I even got a hug from the local birthday greeting gorilla. A night in a warm bed made my birthday very special.
In the morning of August 14 we found Mary and had breakfast together at the lodge. It was slow, but there were many adventures to share while waiting. After breakfast we packed and started for the Valley, a bit late at 10:30 am or so. But the trip was a descent of 4000 feet with only one climb over Cathedral Pass, 9700 feet. It was a delightful hike passing through areas that I had skied in the late 60s and many parts we had run on the Dave Horning ultrathons of the past. We arrived well before dark and settled into Curry Camp's buffet to gulp down several plates of food.
Mary left our car in the backpacker lot and drove her car home. We climbed aboard and drove to Mammoth to at least get somewhat near our sleeping gear. After sunrise we were able to retrieve our packs from Red's Meadow and have a big breakfast there. The next phase of my trip required returning to Tuolumne Meadows and repacking. A mandatory stop at Neli's Deli in Lee Vining gave us a sheltered view of a severe hail storm. The same storm flooded Death Valley and killed some people driving on the road there.
Upon return to Tuolumne Meadows I packed for the next couple hundred miles. A small GoLite pack would replace the back spasm pack I had used on the JMT. Packing lasted until late afternoon. Then Jim bid me farewell as I tromped off the Glen Aulen High Sierra Camp. He drove to Bishop to fly our airplane home.
The storm struck again, dumping large hailstones, but at the time I was happily dining in the eating tent at Glen Aulen on Thanksgiving-style turkey. Of the three ladies at our table all had just celebrated birthdays on August 13. That is an impossible coincidence, but it really was true! A very fine sunset brought in the night after dinner. I found a level spot in the campground away from drippy tress on which I tossed my mylar ground sheet and sleeping bag. The bivy sack, which caused too much condensation to be useful, was left behind.
The trail started out flat and easy but then travelled through the most convoluted terrain imaginable in Northern Yosemite. The valleys were deep and were oriented across the direction of the trail. Drainages led to Hetch Hetchy, not Sonora Pass. My very nice camps were away from heavily travelled areas to avoid bear problems, quite common in this area. The country was pretty but quite isolated compared to the JMT and PCT during thru-hiker season. Occasionally I passed others.
One fellow I met had an amazing story of recovering from heart disease. He had been told he would die wothout a heart transplant. Since none was available he decided to heal himself, starting with limited walks, then more demanding walks, and finally intense workouts including intervals. Going from an ejection fraction of 17 to 58 sounds impossible but he now enjoys the fruit of his labor. He was guiding a young scout through this beautiful remote wilderness park.