Processing Failure: John Muir Trail 2017

I haven’t quite known what to write about the John Muir Trail, because I did not finish it. I was so excited, so pumped, so confident I was prepared. I had spent the whole summer preparing. I had put my life on hold to prepare. I did not seek employment all summer. I took a wilderness first aid course. I built up my backpacking skills with multiple multi-day high elevation trips, dialed down my gear, had a packing system, learned how I like to camp, how I like to eat and otherwise plan my hiking day. I completed complicated administrative paperwork and planned months ahead to export my dog from Japan and import her to Taiwan so my parents could take care of her while I was in the States for six weeks. I was so ready for the rush of an “I CAN do anything I set my mind to!” confidence boost to propel me to the next great thing I would think of.

In my mind, the JMT was a series of shorter multi-day hikes: 3 days to Tuolumne Meadows, 4 days to Red’s Meadow, 3 days to VVR, 8 days to Kearsarge Pass, 5 days to Whitney Portal. By the time I hit the trail I had already hiked 5 days in a row before, the only part I was really worried about was the 8-day segment. Would all my food fit in my bear can? Would my scalp get too itchy?

When my hiking partner Jackie and I arrived at Tuolumne Meadows on the afternoon of Wednesday, September 20 and picked up our resupply boxes, the postman informed us that 1-2 inches of snow were forecast overnight.

“What are we going to do if it snows? We don’t have crampons or four-season tents.” Jackie asked, extremely concerned, almost fearfully.

“One or two inches of snow isn’t going to do anything. It’ll melt off. Crampons won’t help with fresh snow anyway.” I brushed off Jackie’s concerns. It had not occurred to me at all that we’d think of leaving the trail so early. We’d only been 3 days on the trail and on that day Jackie had just gotten into the swing of things, worked out the kinks in all her brand new gear, learned to pack her bag and was finally getting her hiking legs and looking like she was actually enjoying the hiking.

I woke up in the middle of the night to my tent touching my forehead. That’s weird, I thought groggily, my tent site is very flat, how did I slide down to one end? No matter, I’ll just scooch down a little…. Wait. Something is pressing down on my feet. “Arrugh! Muuurrghh!” *punch kick punch kick* In a claustrophobic half-awake panic, I make sounds that are not words.

“Tina! Tina!” I hear Jackie call as I realize the stuff pressing down on me is snow. Realizing it’s snow, I dig around for my headlamp and my mind is rushing. What can I use for a snow shovel? What can I use as a snow shovel? I put on rain pants and rain jacket, my glove liners and extra rubberized gloves salvaged the day before from the Half Dome cable glove pile, grab an empty 2L Sawyer Squeeze bag, and unzip the vestibule of my tent. A pile of snow drops down. “Whumph!”

All sides of my little hexagonal tent were pressed down and buried in the snow. Anticipating a stormy night, I’d pitched my SMD Lunar Solo low to shed wind, but that meant it was especially ill-suited to shed snow. The Sawyer Squeeze bag turned out to work quite well as a snow scoop, and after digging my tent out and re-tensioning it, I helped Jackie dig her tent out. When I thought of 1-2 inches of snow falling overnight on our tents, I had imagined light snow fluttering away. I forgot that early season snow tends to be wet and heavy. In any case it was more like 6-8 inches of snow that fell anyway.

In the morning, everyone was huddled inside Tuolumne Meadows Grill warming up with hot food and drink and exchanging information. The few northbounders, so close to finishing their hikes, were going to continue on. Someone reported that at least 10 southbounders had departed that morning already and they had tramped down a trail, so it should be fine, and two southbounders we were talking to decided to keep hiking. So late in the season many of the hikers were PCTers that had already hiked all the way to Canada and were back to finish the Sierras they had skipped earlier in the summer; they were very experienced and willing to suffer. I can’t remember what conversation I had with Jackie, but she was not prepared to handle the snow at all. I look back at my journal and right after getting back in my sleeping bag after the snow collapsed tent ordeal, I wrote “Alt plan shuttle back to Yosemite, stay a night, shuttle back to Tuolumne over weekend when it’s sunny.” That was the beginning of our compromise plan. I don’t think I would have left the trail if I didn’t think I could get back on it. It was the last weekend the YARTS bus was scheduled to run.

Down in Lee Vining we learned that the YARTS bus would only run that weekend if Tioga Pass was open by 2 PM Friday (it snowed again Thursday night), and, obviously, not subsequently closed. Back on the Internet, reading reports of knee to thigh deep snow on Donohue Pass made me more and more depressed. I moped over gourmet fish tacos and a slice of carrot cake as big as my head and drowned my sorrows in Mammoth Lakes beer. I think Jackie took pity on me when she proposed we hop on the bus Saturday morning instead of Sunday morning, as was our original plan (to wait until the snow had melted more).

Back on the trail, Lyell Canyon was gorgeous, with trees iced for the holidays, the clear stream singing over the rocks, and Donohue Pass glistening high and white in the distance like something out of the Lord of the Rings. During the day it was brilliant and perfect hiking weather, not at all cold and not at all sweaty, but once the sun dropped below the ridge to the west of the valley, it became deathly cold.

I was too elated to be back on the trail to care and, despite the biting wind, left my tent fly half open to watch the stars appear as ice crawled toward the middle of the small pool at Upper Lyell Base Camp. In the morning, it was so cold that the water in my cook pot started to freeze over as soon as I filtered it in, and ice crystals grew off the top of the Sawyer Squeeze Filter when I set it down. I didn’t sleep well, shifting my weight over my crappy sleeping pad when various body parts went numb, but my toes stayed warm. Jackie, on the other hand, had a truly miserable night. No matter what, I really really wanted to get over Donohue Pass, and she really really did not want to spend another two subzero (Celsius) nights in the backcountry. We compromised. I got one more night so we could go over Donohue Pass to Thousand Island Lake and she got one less night because we would take up our campsite-mates Jerry and Sam’s offer of a ride from Agnew Meadows. As it turned out, between Thousand Island Lakes being so breathtakingly amazing and me throwing in sleeping bag liner, Benadryl and earplugs to make things marginally more bearable for Jackie, we did hike all the way to Red’s Meadow before calling it quits.

Could I have continued on by myself after Red’s Meadow? I don’t know. One big mistake we made is Jackie and I never discussed how to handle the kind of situation we found ourselves in where one person wants to bail and one person wants to keep going. When we applied for the permit, neither of us had backpacked before, but by the time we got on the trail I was a much more experienced hiker than she was. As it turned out, we had different priorities, expectations, fitness levels, risk tolerance, and congenital cold tolerance. Jackie was also nursing what turned into a full-blown sinus infection after so many nights in the cold. The other big mistake was that we underestimated what it meant to hike in the Sierras in the shoulder season. Days were short to make miles and camping in freezing was miserable. Services were shuttering up along the trail. We were in Tuolumne Meadows the last weekend it was open. MTR was already closed. We probably could’ve hiked to VVR, but egress from VVR is to the west of the Sierras and seemed logistically difficult. South of VVR all lateral trails would take over a day of extra hiking to reach a remote trailhead. We didn’t know if some of those trails were even passable since they were little travelled this year due to the unusually high snow pack. And if the reason we had to take a lateral trail to exit the JMT was snow, it would be highly likely the relevant access roads would be closed… maybe until next spring! A couple weeks after we got off the trail, I learned that a pair of hikers we met on the YARTs bus back to Tuolumne Meadows did manage to make it to Mt. Whitney. Seeing that on Facebook threw me into another depressive slump. The weather had held out for them, but, as a Facebook commenter noted, that was a matter of luck. I was super jealous, but I am too risk adverse for that.

So, I still yearn for the Sierra Nevada and Mt. Whitney beckons. I would like to try to hike the JMT again next year between late-August and early-September; my permit options have widened because I have done the section inside Yosemite National Park. But, I don’t know if I can put off life for another year to do it. I still don’t know what I am doing with my life, and I don’t want the JMT to be a weird excuse for not making hard decisions… or maybe I should just hike the PCT from April 2018 while I’m at it, “it” being procrastinating from “real life”.

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Disaster strikes

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Looking up Tioga Pass on Friday evening from the Mobil gas station in Lee Vining (home of the Whoa Nellie Deli), hoping it won’t snow overnight again

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Back on the trail!

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At least I got to see this

[If you haven’t seen them already, I posted my best photos from the JMT along with a short daily summary for each day of my 9 Day 2017 JMT Adventure on Instagram (@tumeketina or see the Instagram widget on the right column of this blog) shortly after leaving the trail in October.] 

The John Muir Trail

As you may know, I plan to hike the John Muir Trail, called the JMT for short, in September. It’s less than 3-weeks before I fly to the US to make final preparations (mostly buying food and sending myself re-supply) before embarking on the trail. My friend Libby suggested I tell you all a bit about what the JMT is and why I am doing it. Sorry if I have been chewing your ear off about the JMT this and the JMT that without first explaining what it is.

What is the JMT?

The John Muir Trail is a 211 mile (340km) trail from Yosemite Valley to the top of Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48, in the High Sierra backcountry of California.

To give you a better idea, 211 miles is the distance between New York and Boston or Tokyo and Kyoto.

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JMT Elevation Profile (stolen from the Internet)

The trail is named after pioneer conservationist John Muir (1838-1914), founder of The Sierra Club and chief advocate for the creation of Yosemite National Park. John Muir called the Sierra Nevada the “Range of Light” for the light colored granite peaks carved by glaciers 2.5 million years ago.

Construction of the JMT began in 1915, a year after Muir’s death, and the last sections were only finished in 1938 due to the intervening Great Depression. So, hiking the JMT is not really walking in Muir’s footsteps, but maybe it can be considered walking his footsteps in spirit.

It would be really hard to follow John Muir’s footsteps. In his books, Muir bushwhacks and scrambles up mountainsides with no particular trail or path in mind, getting himself in and then extricating himself from hairy situations, carrying only a few pieces of hard bread in his pockets and making beds out of fallen pine boughs. He had none of the modern high-tech, quick-drying, light-weight gear, but I’d say he was the ultimate bad-ass ultra-light hiker.

Despite the badassity, Muir was no macho peak-bagging exploration expedition leader set out to conquer nature. He was a naturalist and philosopher who believed that man needed to go into nature to commune with God and witness the glory of His creation. Through his careful observations while exploring the Sierra, Muir theorized that Yosemite Valley and its surroundings were shaped by glaciers (now the accepted theory) and later went to Alaska multiple times to study glaciers still in the moment of Creation there. He believed that we need nature for spiritual reasons, and that we cannot think of nature merely as resources to be exploited by man.

Find out more about the JMT at the Pacific Crest Trail Association website. The PCT, popularized by the book and movie Wild, pretty much overlaps with the JMT in the Sierras.

Why am I hiking the JMT?

Maybe you can tell from my description above, John Muir is a personal hero. When I learned about him as an 8 year old on my family’s trans-America road trip, his story and environmental philosophy really fascinated and appealed to me.

Before moving to Taiwan, my parents drove our family from Atlanta, Georgia to San Jose, California on a two-week road trip across the American West. We covered the Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest, Arches, the Great Salt Lake, Redwood, and probably did a small trip to Muir Woods before flying out of SFO. We came back another summer to do Yosemite, Sequoia and King’s Canyon. Thinking back now, those family road trips to the big and sexy National Parks of the American West cemented my American identity, associating freedom with wilderness and patriotism with conservation. I don’t remember many details of what I saw, but this fed into a subconscious attraction to and romanticized notion of the American West. There is a whole genre of film devoted to this feeling: the Western.

Despite taking my brother and I to the National Parks, my parents are not athletic or outdoorsy people, so these were just car trips to the most accessible parts of each park, staying at some highway motel. After I grew up, I knew that what I’d seen and could barely remember was the tip of the iceberg. If barely the tip of the iceberg could continue to have such an impact on me, I knew I had to go back and experience them more fully, but I didn’t think I had the experience or know-how to do so.

I read Muir’s My First Summer in the Sierra a couple years back and it became my dream to hike the John Muir Trail. (Note: Muir’s writings are in the public domain and free on Kindle e-book.) I didn’t have any concrete idea how I would do it though, until I read Carrot Quinn’s Thru-Hiking Will Break Your Heart, which made long distance hiking seem possible to me. Instead of continuing to wish I were more outdoorsy, I would just DO THE THING and become outdoorsy!

I started collecting my backpacking gear last fall, and after getting a permit for the JMT over the winter, started gaining experience with multiday backpacking trips in the spring. 

My hiking plan

My hiking partner Jackie and I have a permit to begin hiking the JMT from Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley on Sept 18. Long story short, I originally had a permit for July 12, but due to the unusually high snowpack in the Sierras from last winter, we reapplied and got a later permit. Unfortunately, that pushes us into shoulder season and we face risks of early season snowstorms in October.

We plan to hike at a pace of about 10 miles a day and complete the trail in about 25 days, weather permitting. Our actual hike will be longer than the official 211 miles because we plan to hike Half Dome and Cloud’s Rest, resupply via Onion Valley and will need to get down to the trailhead from the top of Mt. Whitney at the end of the hike.

My goal is not to hike fast, because I want to have time to enjoy, explore and take everything in, but we are somewhat limited in how leisurely we can go by the late season. I’m not hung up on completing the trail. If you know me, I like to be prepared and am pretty conservative and risk adverse, so if the weather looks iffy, we are definitely open to bailing early. In any case, I’m sure it’s going to be awesome!

Resources

Here are some of the JMT planning resources I have been relying on. The JMT is really popular and there are so many great resources out there. I’m never going to write a “how to” trip planning guide for the JMT, but you can look forward to my trail journal.

Elizabeth Wenk, John Muir Trail: The Essential Guide to Hiking America’s Most Famous Trail

This is the bible for JMT trip planning. I’m also planning to bring this along on the hike, since the detailed descriptions are going over my head now, but I’m sure they’ll be invaluable on the trail.

Bearfoot Theory blog

Kristen hiked the JMT in 2014 and her blog has the best and easiest to follow guides for all your preparation needs, from how to get a permit to how to pack your food. She’s a quit-the-day-job-to-become-an-outdoor-adventure-blogger success story, but only because her content is so good! You can hear her tell her story here.

Facebook Groups:

All of your stupid questions asked by someone else and plenty of up-to-date photos of trail conditions.

  • John Muir Trail
  • John Muir Trail Hikers 2017
  • Ladies of the JMT

John Muir Trail Yahoo Group

Run by Roleigh Martin and John Ladd, seasoned JMT and Sierra veterans. These guys and Lizzie Wenk are also active on the Facebook Groups.

Ape Man’s Youtube Channel

I really like this older California gentleman’s take on hiking and the outdoors. His videos are less polished than a lot of the videos by younger, better looking folks out there (sometimes he looks down to a sheet of looseleaf paper for his notes), but he’s got great no-nonsense practical advice that comes from many years of experience and familiarity with the Sierras and bad dad jokes.