Food / Logistics Planning for the John Muir Trail

If I could eat whatever I wanted while hiking, it would probably be potato chips. Fat, carbs and salt delivered in crunchy deliciousness… Unfortunately, potato chips are bulky and won’t fit efficiently in a bear can. Boo. I am going to be eating a lot of potato chips right before my hike and when I get to my resupply points.

A JMT food plan is basically a JMT logistics plan. There are limited options to resupply along the John Muir Trail. If you start from the traditional beginning of the trail at Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley, the first possible resupply point is Tuolumne Meadows (mile 22.8), then Red’s Meadow Resort (mile 60), then Vermillion Valley Resort (junction at mile 88 with a number of options to get there), and Muir Trail Ranch (mile 110) is the last on-trail resupply point. After that, your options are to (1) book it to Whitney Portal in 10 days or less, because all your food has to fit in a bear canister, (2) hike down to town via a lateral trail (most commonly over Kearsarge Pass to Onion Valley), or (3) pay for a horse packing outfit to do a food drop or recruit some friends to hike your food up to you (also most commonly at Kearsarge Pass).

To make a JMT food/logistics plan, I first made a loose itinerary of my hike to figure out how many days of food I would need and where I would resupply. I plan to hike an average of 10-12 miles a day and used the Wenk book to review trail descriptions and figure out where I might want to camp each night. I am starting from Tuolumne Meadows, and estimate it will take me 7 days to reach Vermillion Valley Resort from there and then another 8 days to reach Onion Valley and 5 more days to exit at Whitney Portal.  The private businesses that serve as resupply points along the trail each charge different fees and have specific instructions for sending resupply packages. So, I made some tough decisions, like “Do I want to spend $40 for the privilege of sending a package with only 2-3 days food in it to Red’s Meadow?” (No, I’ll suck it up and carry a bit more food and if I am short I can eat more burgers at Red’s and supplement from the General Store.) and “Do I really want to spend $265 for the Full Resupply Package at Mt. Williamson Motel?” (Yes, I may need some pampering by then…).

Here is what my resupply plan looks like:

LocationNo. of days foodBreakfastLunch/SnacksDinnerNotes
Tuolumne Meadows (Start)6+1 breakfast666
First day brekkie in civilization, Nero at VVR — possible to get food from Red’s if short
VVR8787
First day brekkie at VVR, last day dinner in Independence
Onion Valley5454
First day brekkie at Mt. Williamson Motel, last day will be back in Lone Pine!
TOTAL171917
Resupply packages I sent myself in 2017. Only sending two packages this year.

As for what I am eating, I am not being too fussed about being healthy or calorie counting. The JMT is only going to take me 3 weeks so I can’t really malnourish myself. Based on rough calorie estimates from the backs of food packages, I’m trying to bring about 2500 calories per day. Since how much food you can bring on the trail is limited by the size of your bear can, you want to bring calorie dense food. Fats are the best. The other thing I am trying to do is fatten myself up before the trail. When backpacking, generally I like to have hot dinner and breakfast (since I need to boil water to make coffee anyway) and then I just snack throughout the day without eating a real lunch. Here’s a list of what I will be eating on the trail:

Breakfast
Coffee (Starbucks Via)
Coconut Oil Packets (Trader Joe’s)
Nido (whole milk powder)
Granola
Instant Oatmeal
Freeze dried fruit

Lunch/Snacks
Tuna Packets (in oil for more calories)
Peanut Butter packets
Nutella Packets
Hummus
Cheese
Summer Sausage / Pepperoni
Tortillas
Prunes
Dried Apricots
Crasins
Nuts
M&M’s
Fruit Leathers
Meat bars (Epic)
Cliff Bars
Candy Bars

Dinners
Olive Oil Packets
Idahoan Mashed Potatoes
Tuna Packets
Chicken Packets
Mountain House and Backpacker’s Pantry dinners
Non-caffeinated tea
Hot Cocoa

If you’d like to learn more about food planning for the JMT, here are a couple great resources:

I also have a great JMT trip planning Google sheet I inherited from a friend, who inherited it from another friend, that I am happy to pay forward if you PM me.

JMT 2019 Gear List

Gear Philosophy

It seems like long-distance hikers, thru-hikers, ultralight hikers and outdoorsy people in general like to talk about gear too much. I think this is because (1) it’s easier to shop for gear online than to actually go outside and train in preparation for an objective and (2) reviewing gear and talking about gear and wearing and raving about sponsor’s gear is how all the “influencers” make money.

I feel very ambivalent about people bandying around numbers about how big the outdoor industry is and how it should have more political clout. As much as I appreciate what Patagonia does in sponsoring creative endeavors like The Dirtbag Diaries and fighting for Bears Ears, I don’t think that we can spend our way out of the environmental crises, no matter how environmentally friendly your camp shoes are. What we need to do is what they used to teach in elementary school back in the 80’s, before environmental issues were so politicized — Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. (Patagonia realizes this too.)

The outdoor community in the United States is very white and very privileged. People often talk about camping and backpacking as if it is free! Outdoor gear is very expensive and obsession with the latest and lightest gear can make costs appear even more daunting and insurmountable for #unlikelyhikers just trying to get into the outdoors. Having the right gear is important. For example, having a sleeping bag that is warm enough and light enough and not too bulky will definitely be key to an enjoyable backpacking experience. But, shaving off a few grams from your pack weight by buying a $20 titanium spork?… Probably not necessary. (Full disclosure: I had said titanium spork and am still sad I lost it. Still hoping it will turn up.)

When I started putting together my backpacking gear in 2016, I did buy nice, fancy, lightweight “Big Three” — pack, shelter and sleeping bag — after intensively researching the interwebs. And, I have been really happy with those choices. However, the rest of my kit was developed over time by cobbling together stuff I already had (my tiny Thermos was initially purchased to be a purse Thermos for commuting to work) or by trying the cheapest option (I still use a BRS stove) and gradually buying more expensive pieces as I figured out what would actually enhance my quality of life on the trail, e.g. moving from a Chinese knock-off Thermarest Z-lite sleeping pad to a real insulated inflatable pad. If you are interested in putting together a beginner backpacking kit on the cheap, PMags’ blog is a great resource, as he says “[t]he best way to learn about backpacking is not discussing gear online or going to gear sales but is actually to get out there.”

Without further ado, here is my JMT gear list.

JMT Gear List

Big Three

  • Pack
    • ULA Circuit  — My pack was once purple, but now it is faded to blue after a summer being used as my guide pack on the Matanuska Glacier. Many ice tools and ropes have been carried on the thing.  Also good as a carry-on on planes. Super simple design but very functional, the only thing I have not been able to figure out how to do with this bag is rack a splitboard onto it. IMG_6043
  • Shelter
    • Six Moon Designs Lunar Solo — No tent poles so ultra squishable and packable. Uses one trekking pole. Large floor for spreading out gear. Not free standing, but I’ve never had an issue setting it up with rocks, and it sheds wind super well, better than a dome shaped tent.campsite
    • Tent accessories: Tyvek ground sheet (purchased from SMD along with the tent), 8 stakes (assorted — bought the SMD tent stake set initially, but have lost some and cobbled together others over the years) and two short pieces of tent cord (2 meter and 3 meter) for guylines.
  • Sleeping System
    • Enlightened Equipment Revelation 20 Degree Down Quilt — This is literally the best thing I have ever purchased. It warms up super quick when it is cold, and unzips flat like a blanket when it is warm. The nylon shell is remarkably soft and comfortable. As an itinerant person, I sleep in this year round. I cannot go back to a sleeping bag. If forced to use a sleeping bag, I unzip it all the way down and use it like a quilt. In 2017, I was worried 20 degrees wouldn’t be warm enough and bought a sleeping bag liner and hated it. It twisted up around me negating all the wonderful things about a quilt. I’d rather just pack thicker long johns and my down parka to sleep in. Some people say quilts are drafty, but I think there is a lot of user error. The neck drawstring is key and you must wear a hat.
    • REI Co-op Flash Pad Regular — R Value of 3.7 at 15 oz and less than $100 when REI is having a sale. It’s been good so far. I purchased this after the JMT in 2017 after discovering that I cease to be able to sleep on a Thermarest Z-lite closed cell foam pad if temperatures drop below freezing, also sleeping on a Z-lite was messing up my hip flexors because they weren’t able to recover in the night. I will let you know about durability after this thru-hike attempt.
    • Sea to Summit Aeros Premium Pillow Regular — Fabric-y surface hides the fact that it’s just an inflatable pillow. When I started backpacking, I used extra clothes rolled up in a fleece jacket for a pillow. I purchased a pillow before the JMT in 2017 with the thought process, “If I have to wear all my clothes to sleep to stay warm, I won’t have a pillow.”
    • Gossamer Gear 1/8 inch Thinlight Foam pad – NEW! Trying this as a sit pad / yoga mat / extra sleeping pad protection/insulation / emergency sleeping pad in case inflatable pad springs a leak — I’m paranoid about leaks because last time I hiked the JMT, I was still super hard core and using an indestructible Thermarest Z-lite closed cell foam sleeping pad but it wasn’t warm enough once temps dropped below freezing.

JMT campsite 2017

What I looked like camping on the JMT in 2017. My quilt is draped over my tent to dry out a bit over breakfast before we pack up.

Clothing

  • Hiking Clothes (Worn)
    • Smartwool 150 T-shirt – NEW! Was going to slum it and wear any old synthetic T-shirt but splurged on a merino wool tee for its anti-stink quality. I have 7-day and 8-day stretches planned for this trek, which will be the longest I have ever been without a shower.
    • Montbell Chameese lightweight fleece jacket
    • Target sports bra and synthetic underwear
    • Northface Aphrodite Pants – Lightweight, quick drying, legs roll-up easily for stream crossings. I think it’ll be cool enough in September to prefer hiking in pants, and pants provide protection from brush and bugs.
    • Baseball cap
    • Sunglasses – random gas station, but polarized
    • Darn Tough Micro Crew socks – I used to have two pairs of Smartwool hiking socks, and two pairs of Smartwool ski socks, but the hiking socks wore out and I replaced them with two pairs of these Darn Tough hiking socks, which are just starting to show wear after 2 years of much more use than the Smartwool socks ever got. I still prefer Smartwool ski socks though.
    • Shoes – I currently own and hike in New Balance Leadville trail runners and Merrill Moab Mid GTX hiking boots. Not sure which I will want to wear and both are getting kind worn, but I think it is risky to break in new shoes now. Leaning toward the hiking boots for a bit more water resistance. I have just purchased new Superfeet insoles to put in which ever pair I choose.
  • Rain Gear
    • Outdoor Research Women’s Aspire Jacket – I have a pretty uncanny ability to make it not rain on multi-day backcountry trips, so I do not have strong opinions on rain jackets. (Tina vs. Whittier — the wettest city in Alaska and the United States, according to Wikipedia — 1 day of rain out of 9 on three separate three-day kayaking trips. Dry rain does not count.) The lining of my old Northface rain jacket started delaminating and ripping so I bought this one because it was very well-reviewed. Will let you know what I think after the JMT.
    • Montbell Versalite Rain Pants – Will shred upon contact with pretty much anything. (Patched with a lot of Tenacious Tape from the one time I tried to wear them on the glacier.) However, super light and useful as extra warm layer, mosquito barrier, pants to wear while doing laundry.
  • Sleeping Clothes
    • Uniqlo Heattech extra warm long johns
    • Uniqlo Heattech extra warm long sleeve undershirt
    • Extra underwear and socks (one to wash, one to wear)
  • Warm stuff
    • Uniqlo Ultra Light Down parka – Inga Askamit, author of Highs and Lows on the John Muir Trail is a fan too. But last winter they started only selling a seamless parka and my friend’s mom who works at Uniqlo warned me that the baffles in the seamless jackets will separate after a while because they are not sewn so that jacket is much less durable.
    • Merino wool Buff – functions as warm hat, balaclava, ear muffs and sleeping eye mask as needed.
    • Hestra Touch Point Warmth Glove Liners —  Merino wool synthetic blend. Expensive, but I got with a Big Sky gift card and they managed a whole season of ripping apart and applying skins to splitboard before developing any holes, which I will darn before the trail.

Water System

  • Sawyer Squeeze filter
  • One 2L Sawyer Squeeze Bag for collecting dirty water
  • 1L Nalgene Bottle – for drinking out of, and can function as a hot water bottle for cold nights, I don’t anticipate carrying more than 1 liter of water at a time for most of the trail.
  • 2L Evernew water bag – for carrying extra water and as back-up Sawyer Squeeze bag
  • O-ring that came with the filter for backwashing
  • Contemplating bringing Aquamira for back-up, as I expect to camp in below freezing temps at some point and am a little worried my filter will freeze like last time. Of course, I know now to not filter water first thing in the morning when it’s really cold. Filter before the sun drops below the horizon and everything freezes, then put it in your puffy jacket pocket and sleep with it.

Food storage

  • Bear Vault 500 Bear Canister – A bear canister is required on the JMT. It is heavy and makes my pack bulge a uncomfortably. It takes up most of my pack, so as I eat my food, I will gradually stuff more and more items in there during the day. In the Sierra, bears are very habituated to people and bear cans. In 2017 when we picked up our JMT permit, we were advised by the ranger in Yosemite National Park to place our bear cans close to our tents (12-15 feet away?), within sight and to make noise and scare the bear off if one approached… Very different from bear can protocol in Alaska or Montana where there a grizzly bears. Bears are super smart and adaptable, so when in doubt, ask the local rangers what it the best policy. Bear cans are not odor proof. The purpose of bear cans is to keep bears from being able to get to your food (bulky round shapes keep bears from being able to crush them with their jaws) and in the long run train them to leave campers alone. If a bear asks to borrow a nickle or a credit card, don’t give it to him!

Camp Kitchen

  • BRS Ultralight 25g Backpacking Stove – Cheap, made-in-China stove that may be less efficient than a fancy Jetboil, but is much more packable.
  • 700ml Evernew Titanium Pasta Pot – I started out with a larger aluminum pot, but figured out that I am pretty happy boiling about 600ml of water for dinner and a hot beverage (coffee in the morning and tea in the evening), so I upgraded to this little titanium pot which fits a small 4 oz fuel canister.
  • Bic mini lighter
  • GSI Outdoors Long Essential Spoon, Large – NEW! Trying this out because silicon spatula sides sound good for cleaning out pot without awful scraping noise. Long spoons are popular for getting food out of the bottom of Mountain House meal bags. It looks kinda ridiculous next to my tiny pot though.
  • Small ~330ml Thermos – Almost lost this hitching out of Lee Vining in 2017, but had the foresight to exchange contact info with the nice English mother-daughter pair that picked us up and got it back! Was sad hiking 4 days without the Thermos, so definitely bringing it!

Shit Kit

  • Montbell potty trowel — It is wayyy easier to dig a proper cathole with a potty trowel than with the heel of your shoe or a tent stake, or whatever ultralight folks claim…. Doubles as extra camp spoon! I kid.
  • Toilet Paper
  • Wipes

Toiletries

  • Sunblock
  • Chapstick with SPF
  • Toothbrush and travel size toothpaste
  • Mini Vaseline – anticipating really dry hands. 😦

Paper Goods

Electronics

  • iPhone SE + charging cable + headphones – Camera and GPS.
  • NEW! Small GorrillaPod smart phone tripod and shutter remote – I’ll be hiking alone this time, who will take beautiful photos of me? Me! Let’s see how much I use it.
  • External battery + charging cable
  • Black Diamond Spot Headlamp – I actually hate the fancy multi-touch control of this headlamp and would rather one that just cycles through all the functions the old fashioned way, but I guess by the end of the JMT I’m going to be a pro at using this.
  • Extra AAA batteries for headlamp

First Aid Kit

  • Exact contents TBD. I will be carrying stuff for blisters (leukotape), wound care (bandaids, gauze and iodine wipes), pain meds (ibuprofen and acetaminophen), and anti-itch stuff (benedryl as well as some topical-steroid anti-itch cream).

Repair Kit

  • Dental floss with sewing needle taped to box
  • Duct tape wrapped around Sharpie
  • Small amount of fabric repair tape (Gear Aid Tenacious Tape)
  • Safety pins – mainly for hanging laundry on pack, also good for first aid.

Misc. Backpacking Gear

  • Mosquito headnet – I’ve made it through a summer in Alaska and a summer in Montana without ever using bug spray, just long sleeves and pants and a headnet. (Not possible in muggy, hot places like Japan or Taiwan.)
  • Earplugs – For windy and rainy nights and if people are partying at VVR.
  • Swiss Army Knife
  • Compass
  • Camp towel – small microfiber towel I got from a Tell charity run
  • Sea to Summit ultrasil pack liner – I only bought this because there are no trash compactor bags in Japan.
  • Small dry bag for sleeping bag and down puffy
  • Crocs – Best camp shoes if you will be wearing socks.
  • Montbell Versalite Pack 15 – for side trails, summits, carrying stuff around camp. Like Montbell Versalite rain pants, not the most durable but super light and packable.
  • Black Diamond Alpine FLZ trekking poles – These poles collapse small enough to fit in my ski backpack in the winter when splitboarding and extend long enough to hold up my tent in the summer. Love them.
  • Wallet – small plastic mesh zip pocket from Daiso.
  • A few extra Ziplock freezer bags – A gallon Ziplock bag makes a great in-tent pee bottle for women, just make sure to double bag in case there is a leak. Set outside your tent door after using and empty at your leisure in the morning.

JMT Bout 2 Fight!

This September I’m going to attempt to finish hiking the JMT. (What is the John Muir Trail?) In late-September 2017, my hiking partner Jackie and I completed about 60 miles from Happy Isles to Red’s Meadows before calling it quits due to early snow and a sinus infection. (That story here.)

I am going to attempt the hike solo this time. In 2017, I was a novice backpacker, having gone on my first ever backpacking trip 5 months earlier. Two years later, I consider myself relatively competent in the backcountry. I’m a WFR, I have basic rope and snow travel skills, I’m pretty confident with navigation and route finding, I’ve bushwhacked and screeskiied in Alaska, I’ve grown accustomed to encountering large wildlife in Montana. The well-marked, well-graded, and well-traveled JMT should be a piece of cake right? Well, what I learned the first time is to not underestimate nature. You never know what it’s going to throw at you.

Since leaving the corporate life, I have actually done a lot of my hiking, backpacking and general adventuring solo. Not because it is brave or adventurous, but out of necessity (efficiency?). All of my friends did not quit their jobs when I did. In fact, none of them did. So, if I was going to have to wait for stars to align with a particular partner, or worse, a group to organize, I was never going to get anywhere. Now that I work seasonal jobs, it’s even harder to coordinate schedules (I don’t have normal people weekends) so if I want to be outdoors as much as possible, I have to be willing to go by myself.

I think the fear mongering about women hiking alone is sexist. We grow up with a cultural undercurrent of fear oppressing women. So many women come to the Ladies of the JMT Facebook Group nervous about hiking alone, or camping alone. Do men have these fears? Do boys’ parents forbid them from hiking alone? As far as I am concerned, I am much more likely to be raped by an acquaintance in his apartment than a stranger in the woods. I am much more likely to be hit by a car than attacked by a bear. No activity in the backcountry is “safe”, but in general I feel safer out in the wilderness than in a busy environment with lots of people.

I’ve been dreaming of hiking the JMT for so long now that I forget what inspired me to attempt it in the first place. (Good thing I wrote about it here.) I just know that I want to do it, and I need a short term goal to propel me forward. By the time I get back on the JMT, it will be nearly 3 years since I left my legal career. When I quit my job, I gave myself 3 years and $60,000 to figure about what to do next. I haven’t figured it out yet. I may have been more burnt out than I thought, as I have been shying away from having any responsibility at work. In order to reach my long term goal of finding a financially sustainable way to live in the mountains, I know I’ll have to shoulder some again soon. But before that, I’m going to finish hiking the JMT.

I currently have a rough 21-day itinerary starting at Tuolumne Meadows, with two resupply points, Vermillion Valley Resort and Onion Valley/Independence. I will hike for 7 days, then 8 days, then 5 days, with one nero and one zero between the sections. It’s almost August and I will be going into full prep mode soon, so stay tuned for more JMT related posts.

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”.

IMG_4365

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.