Copyright © Sasha Dylan Bell 2023.
All Rights Reserved.
Below is my account of thru-hiking the John Muir Trail (JMT), 234 miles through the rugged and beautiful terrain of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California. I aimed to share honestly, recounting the many a ups and downs of this majestic, truely epic life experience. Stay a while and enjoy.
A five-hour drive from LA to Mammoth with my wife, Christina today. I was so excited seeing the Kennedy Meadows sign, signifying the beginning of the Sierra Nevadas, a starting point for many hikers, as they embark into the very mountains I will call home over the next several weeks.
We stopped for a break in the town of Lone Pine, home to Mount Whitney and where I will eventually end my John Muir Trail journey. It seemed appropriate to bookend the trip this way, soaking in a little of what I have to look forward to, I suppose. Being there, it started to finally feel real and since then all kinds of emotions have started bombarding me. Nerves, fear, but most of all, loneliness. I have to keep telling myself, “This is what I wanted. This is normal.”
After devouring burgers and apple pie at the Alabama Hills Cafe, we continued along the freeway, sighting Mount Whitney and passing through the small town of Independence, where I caught a glance of the Mount Williamson Hotel and Basecamp, where I will eventually enjoy a zero day (no hiking) and pick up my last resupply nearing the tail-end of my journey. When hiking a trail the length of something like the John Muir Trail, resupplies become a vital part of the planning stages in the weeks (and sometimes months) leading up to leaving. Food planning takes the form of that which you can carry with you in a bear canister (a requirement for the JMT trail) versus what you can’t. For what you can’t, the food (and any other supplies you might need) are packed up into boxes or buckets and physically mailed to pickup, or “resupply” points along the trail. The Mount Williamson Hotel and Basecamp is one of those points for me. I also had three more along the trail (Tuolumne Meadows, Red’s Meadow & Muir Trail Ranch), wanting to carry as little as I could safely get away with. For more on my resupplies plan, a video will be coming soon…stay tuned.
90 Minutes and 4,000 feet (1,219 meters) elevation after passing through Independence, we entered the lush and beautiful city of Mammoth Lakes. Checking into our Juniper Springs Resort condo, took a quick dip in the heated jacuzzi and adventured back into town to find some sun gloves for the trail at the local mountaineering store (no luck), before heading to the Lakefront Restaurant on Twin Lakes for a romantic dinner together. The restaurant was small, but pretty, owning a real rustic “cabin with wood fire in the snow” vibe and a beautiful view of the lake, for those tables lucky enough to be at the window. We both indulged on enormous prime rib steaks and a chocolate creme brûlée. The ambience was quaintly intimate and the meal sublime. It turned out being there helped calm both of our nerves.
Before heading back out to the hotel, we took in the spectacular lake over the the dramatic surrounding mountains. The soft sounds of a nearby waterfall creating a calming, meditative setting to enjoy the sunset. This place, this experience, was truly majestic and but a small taste of what’s to come for me in the coming weeks on the trail. The nerves are still present, but in these surroundings I’m reminded of why I’m embarking on this journey to begin with.Tomorrow we will continue to Yosemite. For now, I will enjoy my last night in luxury, enjoying a good night’s sleep.
Mammoth Lakes to Yosemite Valley
A rough sleep last night. The bear rummaging around in the metal bins outside the condo complex in the middle of the night wasn’t helping. After watching it rattling the metal box to unsuccessfully attempt foraging any food scraps inside, it scurried off into the night. This got me thinking about being alone in the wilderness at night. About how exposed I will be. These thoughts kept me awake for much of the night.
After waking early and hitting the road, we made our first stop of the day at Tuolumne Meadows, dropping off my first re-supply and buying a makeshift breakfast of pre-cut veggies, prosciutto, provolone and hummus. The breakfast of champions!
Around midday we arrived in Yosemite Valley, stopping at the main store and quickly learning what a zoo parts of Yosemite can be in the height of summer. We briefly took in the decor at The Ahwahnee Hotel (apparently the hotel inspiration for The Shining) and made our way back to Yosemite Valley Lodge to check in, grab a bite for lunch and to get directions to our adventure for the afternoon, hiking the Mist Trail together.
Christina wasn’t feeling great as we started to walk, but once the sites and sounds of nature surrounded her, she quickly perked up, hiking the steep trail like a total pro. I however struggled. Yes, I had my full 40-pound backpack on (food and all), and yes, there was scorching heat and elevation to consider, not to mention a shitty night of sleep to fight through. Being that the Mist Trail is the first teaser of what I’ll begin hiking at the beginning of my journey on Thursday though, the fact that I struggled so hard did shake my confidence a little. Our magnificent view of Vernal Falls/Half Dome and the smile on Christina’s face took the edge way off though. It was a breathtaking (if not crowded) hike and brilliant to get a sense of what DAY 1 of the trail will be like (and to further dial in my pack weight). Later, we made our way to Curry Village where we ordered a pizza for dinner, then took a quick dip in a nearby creek, marvelling at all the golden specks peppering the water. Was there gold in these thar hills?! Then, as the sun went down, we drove out to El Capitan, watching the evening stars rise over the magnificent behemoth before us. It was magical. Nature is grand and I’m once again reminded of what I have in store for me over the coming weeks. Almost hitting a baby black bear running across the road as we made our way back to the hotel, however is also a reminder of just how vulnerable I’ll be with wildlife on the trail. Wish me luck.
Finally, a good night’s sleep. Despite the blast furnace that was our Yosemite Valley Lodge room, Christina managed to achieve some airflow with a cracked window/front door combo and I had the best night sleep I’ve had in, like forever. Thank God, I think I’ll need it. After re-packing my bag one last time to try and nail the right space/balance combo, Christina and I and drove back to El Capitan to soak in its majesty in the daylight. Yep, I was right the first time. It. Is. Epic.
We then made a way to the Wilderness Center to pick up my hiking permit, stopped by the Ansel Adams Photo Gallery and enjoyed our last moments together over a morning drink at a nearby cafe. Saying goodbye is tough, but there we were, in the Yosemite Valley Village Store carpark, me with a 40 pound backpack firmly braced to my back, holding my love in a long embrace. I thought about the card she wrote me to savour on my travels. “Your adventure awaits” it read, and “Don’t forget to stop and look around once in a while” (she knows me too well). I thought about the perfect little farewell gift she bought me. “The mountains are calling and I must go”, read a small John Muir quote, painted on white ceramic tile. I thought about how not having her around to share something so monumental with is leaving me blanketed with a firm layer of sadness, like all the comfort has been sucked out of me. As she pulled out of the car park I raised my arm and waved goodbye. She rounded the corner, gone, out of my life for the next three plus weeks. I miss her more than words already.
I made my way on foot to a small campground for thru-hikers, which I would be staying at the night. Partly to get a good spot before the hoards arrive, but mostly to distract me from the nerves I was starting to feel. When I arrived there was only one other tent pitched, so I chose a site under several trees and not too far from the bathroom, set up camp and took off to Curry Village nearby for a spot of lunch (pizza again!) and to grab last-minute supplies.
Back at the campgrounds later, I got to talking to my camping neighbour, Randy, a JMT southbound hiker, just like me. He had travelled from Indiana to finish the trail in two weeks. A FedEx engineer (like Tom Hanks in Cast Away), he was excited about his trip, but also nervous, which made me feel better about feeling the same way. We also discussed his gear and how he managed to dial it down to 23 pounds (10.5 kg), including food. I am closer to 40 pounds (18 kg), so was feeling a little weight envy, but hey, this is my first thru-hike, so gimme a break. As we back-and-forthed all things trail-related, our conversation was cut short by a girl passing on a bicycle. She warned everyone in the campgrounds of a bear sniffing around in a nearby creek, about 100 meters away. And so my vulnerable dance with nature begins.
As the late afternoon drew on, I decided to walk off some of my uneasy feelings. I explored some dense trees on a nearby path and looked up to Half Dome, baring down on what seemed like an un-climbable height before me. I would be making that very ascent tomorrow…In fact I’d be doing a lot of new, challenging things tomorrow.
Later, as I made my way back into the campgrounds, I heard the rustling of some nearby foliage. Looking towards the sound, I stopped in my tracks. Not 5 meters away was a small black bear reaching for berries on a shrub. Hearing me, it also froze. We exchanged a brief eye-to-eye standoff, like an old Western movie, before it stood onto its back legs and continued staring it’s glare. Not wanting to scare it, I slowly inched around the path, moving in a wide half-cirlce around it. “It’s ok little bear.”, I whispered. “I’m just getting out of your way”. Passing it, I slowly continued down the path, looking back over my shoulder periodically. A bold exchange. I know bears are super common in these parts, but this one surprised me, being so close to heavily populated camping. Well, I wanted to be in the wilderness, so I guess this was my welcome message.
Later, as the evening rolled in, a ranger entered our campgrounds, holding what looked to be a large stun rifle. She reminded everybody to stay vigilant in keeping our food hidden. I guess some bears have sadly been put down because of people allowing them to get a taste of their human food. It makes me sad to think we are causing bears harm through our irresponsible actions. I only hope all that I’ve learned about bear canister use and eating outside of camp will help them (and me) by keeping them at a distance while on the trail.
A neighbouring camper snored like a landing jet all night long. I didn’t get much sleep at all and despite wanting to get up at around 4am, I held off until others stirred, closer to 5am so as not to wake anyone in the camp.
By 6am I was on the move, but was not in a good mood. I was edgy from lack of sleep, my nerves of the brutal first day ascent ahead lingering in my mind. Perhaps I should have been excited, but that was the furthest thing from what I felt. Instead, I was starting this overwhelmingly long journey feeling exhausted, lonely and already missing home. What had I gotten myself into?
Thankfully, as I made my way slowly up the 3,000 foot (915 meters) ascent towards my Little Yosemite Valley campground, my blood was pumping and my confidence lifting, transforming my mood 360 degrees. As I hustled forwards and upwards at breakneck speed, first I passed Vernal Falls, where I had been days earlier with Christina, then up past the top lip of Nevada Falls. There I filtered some water in the creek leading to the falls drop-off and continued on to Little Yosemite Valley, arriving around 9am. I pitched my tent near some bear lockers in the heart of the campground and ate a light breakfast of toasted muesli with powdered milk. By this stage I was feeling great and had gained tons of altitude, so decided to continue up to Half Dome.
The hike was a constant, steady climb, taking several gruelling hours. Thankfully I lightened my pack load by leaving my tent and bedding at the campgrounds. It definitely helped, though I won’t be as lucky when I re-hiked the same 2 mile ascent over almost 1,000 feet (305 meters) to the Half Dome Junction tomorrow. Oh well, hopefully, I’ll be well rested.
I continued up past the junction, a further 2 miles (3.2 km) to the base of Half Dome. There, a ranger checked my climbing permit and warned me of the difficult, steep climb ahead to the half-way point of Sub Dome; basically a large rock platform area, which acts as a launching place for the final cable-assisted ascent to the top of Half Dome. She then kindly offered to look after my bear canister, so I had less weight to burden my climb and cautioned me to not have anything loose hanging outside my pack. Things have a tendency to fall when that high up, apparently.
And so over the next 30 minutes, I climbed up. Straight up! Occasionally on well-weathered steps, but more often on a smooth 45-degree rock face. It got a little hairy in sections, I won’t lie, and although the views were breathtaking, they were causing more harm than good on my ascent, triggering all kinds of vertigo. As I stepped, one foot in front of the other, I just focused forward and tried not to look around, instead hoping to savour the views for when I reached the safety of Sub Dome. And savour the views I did, as I stepped finally onto the crowded Sub Dome platform, enjoying 360 degrees of magnificent Yosemite views, unlike anything I’d ever seen before. I was equally awed and terrified. And as I looked up at the cabled ascent to Half Dome ahead, considering my continued climb, I heard a sharp yell from a woman descending near the top. It was immediately followed by the echoed clanking of a plastic bottle falling from her pack. It smacked and ricocheted from the rock wall over and over again, falling all the way down, echoing loudly throughout the valley. And as I watched that bottle plummet, taking what seems like minutes (though really more like seconds), with nothing slowing its fall, it violently smashed into the ground, well below the safety of the platform I currently stood. “Fuck that”, I involuntarily whispered to myself. “I am out!” That was all the sign I needed to not mess with my vertigo, being content to finish today’s ascent at Sub Dome. After all, Half Dome wasn’t the reason I’m on this trail. I’m here to challenge myself on the John Muir Trail. HHalf Dome is just a bonus…and I have to be alive to do that!
Upon returning to camp, my lunch plans were interrupted by realising I had lost my knife. Day 1 and I’ve already lost something so important. Unable to cut open my salami for lunch, I use a small stick to pierce the tough plastic wrapper and my teeth to bite off pieces. I feel a little shaken that I don’t have a knife, but guess I can buy something when I hit the Tuolumne Meadows in a couple of days. Sitting back to relax after lunch, I took a deep breath and sat back in my camp chair. That moment was abruptly cut short by a voice yelling, “Over here!”, as a bearded “outdoorsy” male in his twenties signalled to a whole class of kids, who followed their leader into my quiet, empty sanctuary. And in less than a minute, the campground turned from a peaceful place surrounded by the beauty of trees into a dorm room, with loud yelling, banging, laughing and aggressive conversations. The campsite was no longer my own.
I took a walk and sat with my legs in a nearby creek, trying to find some peace and quiet. But as I returned to my tent, I was once again bombarded with…well, just…NOISE! There were at least 15-20 young teenage kids basically having a party within meters of my tent. “It’s just a test”, I told myself. “I need to learn to enjoy my experience despite the noise.” Yeah, I know. I wasn’t convinced either. After several hours of enduring what I could, I couldn’t taker it anymore! Walking around the campground, I searched for a campsite, ANY empty camp site, I could potentially move to that would, you know, not sound like a hostel in Cancun during spring break. Thankfully I found one on the outskirts of the campgrounds, perhaps the only one left. I head back to my site, lifted my entire tent up, dragging it across the grounds to make camp for the second time today, just as the sun found its way to the horizon.
And so, my first night on the trail was saved. Being such a busy campground, this is perhaps my last night surrounded by a small town of campers before I head out into the wild.
Today is a day firsts. Last night, marked my first overnight backpacking trip and today is the first time I’ve hiked (counting day hikes) two days in a row. That said, it was a brutal, epic day. Utterly shattered. Up, up, and more up. Thankfully, I slept well last night, thanks to telling myself that “I am not afraid” every time there was a bump in the night. Inspired by Cheryl Strayed on her first night in the wilderness in her book, Wild, that shit kind of works. The extra sleep didn’t stopped me from being a physical wreck this morning though. I hit the trail around 6:30am and didn’t want to have breakfast, just snack. I found myself not hungry at all today actually. Some have told me that it’s a result of altitude and your body getting used to the physical demands you’re putting the body through.
I re-hiked up the 2-mile (3.2 km) ascent I did yesterday to Half Dome Junction before continuing on through a tunnel of trees, eventually arriving at a massive stretch of low hard, shrubs. There was a path carved through the shrubs, but tightly with not much in the way of room to move. As I stepped in, I felt my legs rub against each branch, hyper-aware as I went of the possibility of snakes in this sort of terrain. The low-dense green tunnel was kind of made for them. And so, I put my trekking poles in the lead of each step, swishing them about as I walked, hoping to scare off anything that might be hiding. Not half a mile in, I passed my first hikers for the day. Two girls travelling in the opposite direction. “It goes on for a long while, these shrubs”, warned one of them. I thanked them and continued on. As time passed, my calves and shins were starting to feel a little raw, having spent an hour or two rubbing against the harsh shrubs. I stopped, boosted my energy with a mini-Snickers (YUM!) and checked my GPS app, which I hadn’t checked in a while. I was surprised to see my location slightly off the trail. Since a trail continued on before me, I figured it was a glitch and moved on. Perhaps 15 minutes later I looked again. This time I was significantly off the trail. Realising that at some point I missed a junction and the trail had spit, I had to find a way back onto the JMT. The only way I could see to duo that was to step off the path, climbing very steep, rugged terrain and inch slowly closer. The climb was extremely difficult, stepping into thick vegetation, across rocks, over logs, rubbing against low trees and boulders. It was kind of scary. I must have been on the wrong trail a while, because this steep, aggressive climb took me close to an hour to navigate and when I finally stepped back onto the JMT trail, I was so happy. I stopped for a moment, thanked the heavens for getting me back on the right track and cemented a new plan to always regularly check my GPS app (Guthooks) throughout my hike on the rest of the trip, especially at signs and junctions. I would need to be religious about it moving forward, because I’ll be damned if I am going to go through anything like that again. One positive spin, at least I was now out of the low, shin-scraping, snake-hiding shrubs.
For lunch, I sat on a large boulder and broke out my bear canister. As I unloaded my food, I quickly realised that some of the perishables I bought don’t have much of a shelf life after being opened. The perfect example is my lunchtime salami. Having opened it yesterday, it was looking completely discoloured today. Not exactly what I’d call a safe bet to eat. So now, I not only don’t have the meat I was counting on for lunch, but I have extra pack weight, having to carry this bad meat. Guess I’m going to have to rethink my upcoming meals when I re-supply at Tuolumne Meadows tomorrow.
Later in the afternoon, I continued on towards my planned camp for the night, Cathedral Lakes. What I naively hadn’t counted on was Cathedral Pass being such a climb. Passes are the spine of the John Muir Trail, ascending through eleven (counting one I do twice) on my journey, they are pathways through a mountain range or ridge, often at very high altitudes. As I’m still getting used to elevation gain figures and milage, I wasn’t expecting to have such a brutal climb at the tail end of my day, following so much of it already in the morning. My body ached and I was feeling spent, but up I went. All the way up. Afterwards I was rewarded with a stroll through a giant, flat grassy meadow, close to High Sierra Camp. As I took in the beauty of this pristine green, I thought of Christina and how I wanted to take her to this camping area one day. Perhaps we’ll tack it onto the tail end of my trip, eh?
As I neared my final miles for the day, a ranger passed and asked if I had a permit on me. Since it happened to be the same ranger who gave me my permit the day before I started on this trail, I reminded him of the fact and he recognised that he wouldn’t need to check my paperwork. He asked if I was carrying a bear canister. I told him yes and he went on about his day. As I walked on it occurred to me that I didn’t find one person traveling in my direction today, and some hikers I passed also told me that they hadn’t seen anyone either. Perhaps I’m just fast and so consistently ahead of everyone else, or perhaps other southbounders are just all late risers.
Shortly after I arrived at Upper Cathedral Lake, beautiful and blue, surrounded by intense lush green grass, trees and shrubbery. I made my way down to the water edge, took off my pack and set up my mini tripod, so I could snap a few pictures surrounded by these vistas. As I posed for the photos, the bizarre and random sound of a loud mule bray pierced the air. I deduced that stock was being walked through the area and that some mules were going to be among my neighbours for the night.
I walked to the other side of the lake and found some flat ground on which to camp and realised that I had lost my sunglasses somewhere in the area. I have no idea how or where, but yesterday my knife, today my sunglasses. I feel like such an idiot. Thankfully I’ll be able to get something to tie me over (hopefully) in Tuolumne Meadows. Between the sound of loud mule brays I set up camp, struggling with the hard rock surface. Being unable to hammer my tent pegs into the ground, I instead wedged each peg between rocks. Not the most stable of solutions though. I only pray it’s not windy tonight. There are also small paw prints all around my campsite. Either the last person who stayed here brought their dog, or there are mountain lions in the area. Comforting…“I’m not afraid. Who’s tough? Me, that’s who.” Thanks again, Cheryl.
Despite the mule sounds, sitting here at Upper Cathedral Lake with chirping birds and a gentle breeze blowing through the surrounding pine trees, I’m given a taste of quiet at a campground. Thank God, a very nice change. My body is so exhausted though, I was, for a brief moment, considering getting to Tuolumne Meadows tomorrow morning and just camping for the rest of the day. Relentless ascending will do that to you.
As the sun set, I finished picking at my freeze-dried meal of veggies and rice (still not that hungry) and watched the last 30 minutes of the movie, The Avengers on my phone. Marvel movies seem to make me feel at ease. At home. Safe. So I’m glad I have so many of them on my phone to watch at times like this. Feeling lonely, I drifted off to sleep through the intermittent hee-haws of my mule neighbour.
Last night was way colder than on previous nights. Guess it’s going to continue in that trend the higher into the Sierras I travel. Instead of sleeping in my underwear and having parts of the quilt on me, I slept in shorts, shirt, socks, beanie, and a quilt wrapped all around me. Sleep was fine overall, but I woke early in the AM and was in a real mood. Angry at my pack for being hard to get on. Angry at the trail. Angry that my power bank charger was half empty already after only a few nights. Just angry. Like with day one the trail though, 30 minutes into the hike and I was human again. Hiking = love, camping = not so much.
I got to talking to a northbound JMT’er who was in his final days. He wore a yellow cap, shorts, a short sleeve Brooklyn racing t-shirt and was just positively beaming. I asked him if he had any tips moving forward. He pointed out where on the trail to watch out for bugs and sun exposure, but most of all, he pointed out that I have so much to look forward to. It turns out that he had a similar conversation with the southbound JMT’er at the beginning of his hike and the man he spoke to couldn’t stop smiling. Now it was him who couldn’t stop smiling. Given how I was feeling at the beginning of the day, this really lifted my spirits.
When I arrived at the Tuolumne Meadows store, I put my power bank on the communal charger. Figure I could buy a little boost, which would help calm my nerves. I bought a shitty knife and some even shittier sunglasses to replace the ones I’d lost, along with a small bag of Doritos, a nectarine, some lime club soda and a bag of fresh veggies. The post office wouldn’t open for another two and a half hours, so I had some waiting to do. I bit into the nectarine. The juices lit up my entire body at once. I closed my eyes and savoured each bite. That may have been the best piece if fruit I’ve had in my life!
As I waited, I noticed a hiker on a nearby table who had the same backpack as me, but her bear canister secured to the outside, something I’ve been unable to land on my own gear setup. I asked her about it. The secret it seems is in wedging some small items to the front, underneath it to provide support and to close the gap. She was traveling the PCT with her friend. Between the two of them and another nearby hiker who had also done the JMT, I was given a handful of ‘must sees’ along the way, including Thousand Island Lakes, Lake Virginia, Lake Marie and Evolution Lake. I shared with them that this was not only my first thru-hike, but my first overnight hike and they all look stunned. Is that a good thing or bad thing? No sure, but it felt so good, shooting the shit with people about hiking experiences. I felt part of a community and just that little bit less lonely.
When the post office finally opened, I laughed at the contents of my resupply. Wow, I had over-packed! Sorting the contents into piles of what I would keep and what I would let go of (around half), I offered to all the surrounding tables anything that of the latter. There was a flurry of hikers crowding my table, like seagulls picking off scraps on the beach.
I got to talking to my neighbouring table, a father-son hiking team, also doing the JMT southbound. The father, Steve was lovely and we talked about how we’d likely bump into each other again along the trail. The son, Evan was also cool, but didn’t talk to him that much. Also on his table was a young lady who introduced herself as Portia. “Like A Wish Called Wanda”, I said, expecting her to clock the reference. “You know, why’d they name her after a car?” But she looked at me blankly. Guess the movie is older than her. Portia was leaving Steven and Evan at Tuolumne Meadows and for some reason made it her responsibility to find homes for any of the unclaimed food that I had on offer. What can I say? Folks are just so friendly and generous out here.
I left Tuolumne Meadows in the early afternoon, hiking 5 or 6 flat miles (8 – 9.6 km) through meadows and streams. It was beautiful, but for some reason I really struggled through the last two hours, despite it being a cake walk compared with yesterday’s terrain. I arrived at what I believe to be a Lyell Canyon, my planned stop for the night. As I arrived I met three hikers, also setting up camp. Celia and Liz, two women in their fifties and Jessie a man in his late thirties/early forties, who I assume was Celia’s son. They were hiking a three-day loop and Celia in particular had that warm, inviting, motherly presence about her. I found a tiny little tent site isolated from the three campers, but close enough to feel like I had neighbours. I apologised in advance for any noise I would make packing up early in the morning and went about setting up camp.
Spending the next couple of hours sitting in my camp chair (which I’m loving, by the way), I soaked in the truly spectacular view of the surrounding pine tree-swept mountains, towering above the nearby creek. The view was seriously like out of a movie. Total paradise, except for the mosquitoes that is, which I swiped at regularly. As the afternoon heat boiled to a head, I strolled down to the creek and dipped my feet in the cool, flowing waters. “ Look after your feet”, the PCT hiker from earlier had urged me, so I did. Sitting on the water’s edge for what felt like an hour, I soaked my feet and watched the water flow down the rocky rapids. I thought about seeing my neighbours taking a dip a little earlier. Celia called out to me, “You should absolutely go in, Sasha! It’s cold, but it’s so refreshing.” And so I looked around to see if any passing hikers were in the nearby trail. The coast was clear, so off came my clothes….all of them! I held on to some nearby rocks for support, then submerged my naked body into the oncoming rapid water. The cold forced a loud gasp from my mouth, as I frantically scrubbed three days of sweat and trail of my body. Afterwards, I scrambled back to my clothes and, looking around for hikers again, dressed quickly on the nearby bank. Despite the clothes being dirty I felt like a newly-minted man. I can’t believe what a difference it made and the feeling made me laugh out loud. I hadn’t laughed properly since I started this journey. Here’s hoping there will be many more.
That evening it became clear that my power issue was still a concern. The power bank I counted on to charge my phone, GPS device, watch and headlamp was already draining back down to half, despite the charging boost earlier. What this meant for charging my communication devices once again left me feeling disconnected and alone. I made dinner and ate, as the sun went down, colouring the surrounding mountains Yosemite’s trademark bright, burnt orange. I filtered my evening’s water and decided to thank Celia for the swimming tip. That sparked a conversation with the three campers about how this being my first thru-hike and first overnight hike. Just as with the PCT hikers earlier, they were all gobsmacked. “Doing it alone?”, asked Liz. “That’s brave”. She then went on to ask why I was doing it. I shared how I needed something to shake me out of the last year and the pandemic. That I needed to test my mettle. Jesse gave me some advice on getting to Red’s Meadow a day early, in case it helps with my power charging issue. I thanked him and as I said goodnight, Liz thanked me for sharing my “interesting story” with them. I, in turn, thanked them for “giving me some much-needed connection”. And so, I went to sleep a little more connected to folks than when I woke this morning.
My rough night sleep last night started with the loud, but slightly distant, painful screams of what I think was a bear at 11:15pm. At the time I woke, I could have sworn it was going to be closer to 3am, feeling it was entirely later than it was. But that wasn’t the case, and what followed was another night of very broken sleep.
I finally rose at 4:30am, quietly packing out camp in the pitch black. My cold breath lit by my headlamp’s red “seeing in the dark” light. I hit the trail around 5:15am, hiking without a headlamp. I guess I’m getting more comfortable with the outdoors. Ever since I met the yellow hat guy yesterday morning, I’ve been thinking about how happy he was to rise early, beating the heat on passes in the morning. And so, I wanted to follow suit, hitting Donahue Pass as early as possible. Since I was up so early, I passed no one (and I mean no one) on the trail for the first two and a half hours. Then it occurred to me I might very well be able to nail Donahue Pass before anyone else. You know, be the first up there! Not that I’m in a hurry, but since it’s my first major pass on the trail, I figured it would be a nice goal. So I started to get aggressive, pushing forward and making excellent time, passing hikers as they packed out camp along the trail. And as I reached the top of the first ascent, a stunning lake surrounded by mountains, I was feeling pretty confident.
At the lake, I met two hikers packing up camp on their last days of doing the JMT northbound. They were friendly and happy to be getting close to their goal. I too had a goal for the day and while it was admittedly a silly one, it was something for me to hold onto to help me brave the ascent ahead. And then I took a wrong turn, following an incorrect path off the trail. By the time I reset back onto the right path, a man had started approaching from behind. Shit! My competitive edge in the balance, I pushed forward. Looking back, the man had stopped to talk to the two camping hikers. Good! I might make some headway. Embracing whatever competitive urges I was feeling, I huffed up the mountain. After a while, I looked back and the guy was still talking. Thank God! I might beat him to the top yet.
And on I went for a while, focussing on the trail one foot after the other, pushing forward, before noticing that the guy was now following me and gaining! I double-timed it, despite my aching legs, breathless lungs and inability at this point to say my own name. I reached another mountain lake surrounded by patchy snow on a crevice of mountains around it. He was still gaining. I looked at my GPS. There was still over a mile of ascending to go. The rate of his gaining there was no way I was going to beat this guy, so I began to remind myself of how this journey isn’t a race. How it isn’t why I’m here and that I should slow down for limbs safety anyway. Then oddly, I looked around and the guy was no longer behind me. He must have stopped! I have a chance to reach the top first again! And so, I dug in once more, out of breath, upwards, upwards and upwards, some more. It was gruelling, but I was determined to give this gift, this silly little goal to myself. With no air left in my lungs and about a quarter mile to the top of Donahue Pass to go, I turned one more time, dismayed to see that not only was the same guy following me again, but that he was gaining quickly. I moved with focus, pushing through the pain, inching closer and closer, but no matter how fast I was going, he was moving at twice to speed.
Finally with less than 100 meters of gruelling ascent to go, with no steam left in my body and the guy now right behind me, I had no choice but to let him pass. But then, the damndest thing happened. As he went to pass, I said “hello”. The man heard my Aussie accent, stopped and told me he has a friend from Australia. So close to the top and we just stood and chatted. It turns out he did the JMT northbound solo last year and this year he wanted to experience it with company, but on the second day, just out of Little Yosemite his hiking partner pulled the plug, unable to keep the pace. So now the man was hiking solo again, which made him sad. He asked if I want to continue up with him, and so, after several miles and what felt like several hours of ascending to beat this man to the top, I found myself now hiking right alongside him over its last couple of minutes. As far as I know I was still the first to reach the top of the pass today, and even better, I had someone to take my picture!
As we soaked in the beauty (and relief) of being at the top of the pass, we got to talking. It turned out that the man had same camping goal of Thousand Island Lakes today, so we decided it would be fun to continue together. And we did. His name was Craig or CJ, and he was a retired postal service manager in his late fifties. He has two daughters in their thirties, a bunch of grandkids, and has been happily married for 30 plus years. He lives in Ventura, California and loves hiking (duh). We talked to gear, camping tips and life. He shared his knowledge of hiking the JMT and I shared tips on taking better photos (as we traded snaps in front of beautiful vistas we passed). As we descended, we interacted with passing hikers. One man, who was section-hiking northbound with a woman looked and sounded exactly like the actor, Crispin Glover from Back to the Future “Hello! McFly!”). I was embarrassed to ask if it was him, but it totally was!
So going from intense feelings of loneliness to having a hiking buddy this morning created a complete emotional transformation. CJ liked the idea of company also and we talked about possibly travelling for the next few days together. He offered the use of his power bank to charge my electronics, in case it relaxes any push I have to get to Red’s Meadows early. Hell, we even talked about perhaps grabbing a beer in Mammoth. It all sounded fun!
As we approached our planned camping destination of Thousand Island Lake, it started to rain a little. We passed two girls with the makeshift water bottle holders that would be perfect for me, so I took their pictures and will look at MacGyver’ing something similar on my next trip. Despite the drizzle we stopped, had a quick lunch, found a lovely campsite near the water and pitched our tents, as the downpour began. And so my tent experienced it’s first test of the elements. Cozied up inside, I changed out of my hiking clothes, swapping my shorts for camp pants and dirty socks for camp socks. I also decided to anti up and put on a fresh pair of underwear. Sliding them on was indescribable. Despite my dirty body, the underwear felt like it was not only cleaning my entire body with its freshness, but that it was cleansing my soul. I lay smiling on the bed, laughing and how good it felt to put them on.
After about an hour, the rain stopped and I decided to open my camp chair on the banks of the lake, overlooking the snow-specked Mount Banner, mirroring it’s reflection on the now still lake water. As far as views go, they do get worse. It wasn’t long though before the rain picked up again, this time, much harder. And as I raced back to my tent, I realised my water filter had leaked everywhere, creating a puddle of water beneath my sleeping pad. Wet outside, wet inside, I felt miserable. Thankfully, the small towel I brought soaked up the majority of the water. Despite not much phone battery, I turned on the The Avengers: Age of Ultron to help distract me while I dealt with the water issue and reorganised everything in the tent. The power bank is now down to its last bar of charge. Considering I have four devices to charge, it has me pretty nervous. I’ll decide tomorrow if I’ll aim for Rosalie Lake to stay the night, or if I’ll try and make it an additional 9 miles all the way to Red’s Meadows, so I can get this power situation sorted out.
A tumultuous day emotionally. So many highs reminding me of what’s so special about the trail, but then these lows making me ask, “Why am I doing this?” I find myself questioning whether I can take hiking and battling potential rain for another two plus weeks. I guess the weather change has sobered me up to what I might very well be up against out here. I miss warmth. Despite having a lovely new hiking buddy, I still find myself feeling lonely. I Miss Christina so much. Why am I here? Why am I doing this? Can I take daily rain and lightning? Can I take the same freeze-dried food everyday? The relentless strain on my body? The isolation? Beauty has a funny way of often disguising itself in pain and discomfort. Who am I in this discomfort? Will I find out? Or will this be just another dead end of confusion and fear in my life? Well, I have only one way to find out, as I prepare for sleep, to wake for another day of hiking the trail.
Sleeping in a little this morning, I didn’t hit the trail until 7am. Not before forcing myself to eat breakfast though, something I’ve avoided most mornings opting instead for dried fruit snacks. Glad I did too, because it seemed to boost my energy as I marched off solo, planning to meet CJ 8-odd miles (12.9 km) further on at Rosalie Lakes.
About an hour into the day, I reached Garnett Lake. The sun was breaking through grey clouds that had persisted all night through the morning. And with it painted a beautiful rainbow, right over Mount Banner, eventually splitting into a double rainbow. I couldn’t help but think of Christina in that moment and say the words I’ve grown accustomed to saying with regularity on this journey, “Wow”.
As I continued to walk, I couldn’t help but envy the many couples I passed. Family, friends, lovers. “I like hiking alone”, I thought to myself. “But camp sure would be fun with company.” That thought was cut short and replaced with a gasp, as I approached Shadow Lake. Quaint, but stunning, it’s like a breathtaking postcard, of blue waters and lush green pine trees. I stood for a moment, soaking in the beauty.
Just beyond the lake, I passed a large group of people. As I greeted them I noticed Randy, my Southern neighbour from my first night in Yosemite Valley. I was surprised to see him, since his schedule was tight and so I expected him to be further ahead at this stage. It turns out that despite wearing foot gaiters to protect against dust and pebbles getting into his shoes, he had developed four nasty blisters on his second day of hiking. This caused him to slow right down. Yesterday, he only clocked 4 miles, instead of the 15+ he had scheduled on average.
I wished him well and ascended a further 600 feet (183 meter) over 1-mile (1.6 km) towards Rosalie Lake. Arriving around 11am, nobody was around. I took my pack off, ran up a nearby hill and dug my first cat hole for a backcountry bathroom break. As far as experiences go, I don’t rate it up there with like say, a day a Disneyland, but I did what needed to be done and moved on a couple of hundred meters to what would be the campsite for the night. No sooner had I dropped my pack, than hail started to tip-tap on the forest floor. Slowly at first, but accelerating to rapid fire within minutes. Finding some trees to shelter near, It still managed to pelt my pack and head. Regardless, I felt a sense of fun, even laughed as the ground quickly started to resemble the aftermath of a snowstorm. That fun was turned around in an instant though as a flash of lightning, immediately followed by the crack of thunder told me a storm was now directly overhead. Bolting to a nearby group of trees for better cover, I joined two hikers who were also hoping to find some extra protection. It turned out one of them was Randy who had just arrived as the hail started and the other was CJ, who must have just caught up with me as the storm rolled in. I offered a jovial hello and at that moment the hail became rain. The hard kind. Guess setting up camp was gonna be a challenge.
Once the rain did stop for long enough, we all quickly pitched our tents just in time for another downpour. Rain bucketed down as we each sat in what felt like the flimsy protection of our tents, while flashes of lightning and crashes of thunder surrounded us.
When the sun finally did come out, it was glorious. We all laughed at how quickly the weather had changed. I mean, it is kind of funny. One second the gates of hell open on top of you, the next, chirping birds and sun-shimmering lake waters. I ate some lunch (tortillas with cheese, Spam and crushed cheesy chip thingies) and afterwards sat by the lake talking shit with Randy and CJ. I took some portraits on my phone and relaxed, hoping the sunny break would last. It seemed for a moment that like it might. But after an hour or so, the tip-tap of rain started again and this time it came back angry. Hail, showers, thunder, lightning. At one point I thought my tent was going to cave in, as is was pelted with hard rain. A stream of water flowed under my tent, turning the floor into a waterbed, bobbing up and down as I touched it. With nothing but wet misery around me, no hiking in sight or interaction possible, given our tent-prisons, the thought of pulling the plug on this trip at Red’s Meadow had occurred to me for a brief moment. I even imagined scenarios where I would pack everything up right then and there, walking 9 miles (14.5 km) to Red’s Meadow through the rain. Anything to escape this. I mean, it was abysmal. I guess this is the psychological part of doing the John Muir Trail that people talk about. “Embrace the suck”, CJ reminds me, so instead I turned on the The Avengers: Age Of Ultron to cheer up and waited for the weather to turn once more.
Once it finally did, around 4pm, Randy, CJ and I quickly made and ate an early dinner, just in case the sky opened up again. I had a fantastic freeze-dried Pad Thai with chicken and a tortilla, following it up with a very messy creme brûlée for desert. Guess my appetite is growing. I’m glad because the last few days have been the opposite, with almost no hunger at all.
After dinner, the sky looked ready to break again at any minute. While we still had a window however, we got to talking to our new neighbours, who had arrived during the last downpour, Steve & Evan (from Tuolumne Meadows) and their friend, Nico. Evan told us that his GPS weather reported showers in the morning, but after that we should be good for the rest of the week. A big relief. Honestly, the storms over the last two days has spun me for a loop several times today. Apparently this amount of rain is unusual for this section of the trail, so that’s good news.
One massive positive to look forward to is that I’ve had my wife, Christina book me a nice hotel room in Mammoth Lakes tomorrow night as part of my planned zero day (no hiking). Once I arrive in Red’s Meadow, I will take the shuttle into town and enjoy a nice shower and some hot food. Then, between my zero day and the thought of standing on Mount Whitney at the end of this journey, hopefully I’ll not only make it through the next two weeks, but that will be as spectacular as everybody claims. I wanted to test my mettle to see who I am, right? So, I guess this is just the beginning.
Another very rough night of sleep. A camper in the area snored the bejesus out of the campground. The plus however was getting up at 12:30am to pee, looking up at a crystal clear sky and STARS! The clear skies, a good omen for upcoming weather.
Packing up early to get a head start on the day, I soloed out of Rosalie Lakes onto Red’s Meadow. I was really looking forward to being around some creature comforts again, and despite my lack of sleep, was in a very chipper mood. Making good time over the 9 mile (14.5 km) hike, I arrived just after 9am and after taking a quick look around at their general store situation, I went to the cafe and ordered bacon and eggs on toast with a large OJ. As I sat, a young lady in her twenties asked if she could share my shaded table. She was a PCT hiker named Stephanie (trail name, Salt) and one bubbly, confident and super friendly human. She talked about being a “yes” person, saying yes to the doing opportunities that come into her life. This gets her into a lot of trouble, but equally creates the “most fun experiences” in her life. She talked about, for better or worse, seeing the good in people first. About expecting it from them. She talked about creating her ideal life by putting herself “in the bubble”. I like that. Putting yourself in the kind of bubble that suits you and keeping everything else out. Her outlooks were inspiring, made even better by a hearty breakfast and her hilarious potty mouth (made me feel right at home). Our conversation came to an abrupt end when the shuttle bus to Mammoth arrived. I bid her good luck and boarded.
As I sat on the bus, curving up the winding road, I watched the mountains I had just hiked through pass by in no time flat. There was something about experiencing them that way that felt so disconnected. It was almost like I wasn’t just there amongst them hours before. I ached to reconnect to them, to be amongst them once again.
Arriving in Mammoth Lakes, I immediately made my way to the Mammoth Mountaineering Supply store, which I had been in only a week ago. This time however, I walked in a confident hiker. Someone who owned that store and knew what he wanted from it. I replaced the knife and shitty sunglasses I bought in Tuolumne Meadows. I also swapped out a bunch of gear that wasn’t working for me and grabbed some add-ons, including a small, lightweight stove (MSR Pocket Rocket), a new aluminium mug, some sun gloves, a replacement filter from my water purifier and a new waterproof notepad for journaling.
The store was spitting distance to the Sierra Nevada Resort & Spa, the hotel Christina had booked for me. I decided to call, mentioning that I was a JMT hiker in desperate need of a shower. They kindly allowed me to check in early. Guess they get that a lot. 🙂
The rest of the day I charged electronics, sorted through emails, downloaded movies to my phone, cleaned and dried the storms off my tent and did my all my dirty laundry (which involved me running down the hotel hallways in nothing but my rain jacket and a towel around my naked waist). I then had my first shower in like a week. It was SO good, but kind of shocking to see that the most of the dirt flowing into the drain didn’t come from my legs, but rather from the very thin layer of hair on my mostly bald head.
Once cleaned, I called my Mum, my sister, Mandi and of course had a beautiful, long conversation with my love Christina. It was so good connecting for more than 160 characters at a time (the limitations of my Garmin GPS texts). Christina claimed that I’m already coming across as a whole different person. That’s a good thing, I know.
After running a few errands in town, but mostly staying in the hotel for the day, I made my way out to have a nice steak dinner at the nearby Bleu Market & Kitchen. It was a little strange, sitting in a restaurant alone surrounded by couples and families, but honestly the food was so good I just didn’t care. Later, I stayed up well past my camp bedtime of 9pm, buzzed by the amount I want to squeeze into my time with electricity and the internet. So with a day enjoying being connected, clean and comforted in a soft, warm bed, I drifted off and dreamt of the wild.
My first night sleep without the dread of a bear or a mountain lion sniffing around the tent. Walking up in a bed in the middle of the night however was disorienting. In the darkness, I thought that the light from a nearby charging device was a star in the sky. It took a good 30 seconds before I realised I wasn’t lying in my tent outside, but instead in a dark hotel room. When the realisation came, it felt strange to be in a bed. Inappropriate somehow, like I was supposed to be on the trail. Perhaps I was, but bloody hell I was enjoying the comforts of this zero day.
After waking in the morning, I decided to walk off some frustration and uneasiness I was feeling around being unable to work out my upcoming hiking itinerary by strolling around the town for a spell. On the walk, I realised that one potential solution to some of the power issues I’ve been having would be to ditch my Apple Watch before I hit the trail again. As much as I hated having to do it, being unable to track my hiking stats or “close my rings” (ending my everyday streak since September last year), it seemed like when it comes to power consumption than I needed to simplify. No sooner had I made that decision than a deer appeared just meters in front of me. It was sussing out the front porch of a local home. It looked up at me, I said, “hello” and continued on, taking it as a sign of making the right choice with the watch.
Back in the hotel I downloaded all the music playlists that were on my watch onto my phone, packed my backpack and waited for it to be late enough to talk to Christina. A growing uneasiness took hold inside of me. I was feeling scared about the trip ahead. I was confused about what direction to take in life. I was feeling lonely, exposed and on edge. By the time Christina called I was a tinder box and whatever emotions had been building up all avalanched out of me like a tsunami over a tiny levee. I instantly became a blubbering mess, crying about who I “really” am and what I’ve done with my life. About what the hell I was even doing out on the trail. She reminded me that I was an honourable man of integrity. The man she loves. That these feelings have just been dying to get out and that the journey so far has helped trigger all these messy emotions. That anytime I have a free five minutes at home, I “fill it” with distractions. Well I wasn’t distracted now and the flood gates had well and truly opened. And after letting myself feel it all and share it with the woman I love, I started to feel a little better. I confided that I was embarrassed about falling apart in front of her. “The man I love is authentic”, she replied. “And that’s what interests me more than feigning control.” God I miss her so much. I got me a good one.
After checking out of the hotel, I walked to the post office, shipped off my watch and a handful of other items I no longer needed on the trail. I also posted a card I had written Christina the day before. I then hopped on a trolley followed by several buses, making my way back to Red’s Meadows, where I had booked a cabin for the night. And as I said my final farewell to phone reception for the next ten days, one last text came through from Christina. “Love you and think what you’re doing is epic and inspiring and so fucking wild. Our wild is all of it. You’re mine and that makes me the happiest girl in the world.” Yep, I’ve got a good one.
Arriving back at Red’s Meadow, I had a few hours to kill before I could check into my cabin, so I ordered a burger for lunch, having to skipped breakfast (altitude must be still be messing with my system). The girl on the counter called my name for food pick-up. “Here is your silverware”, she offered with no trace of irony, passing me a plastic knife and fork wrapped in too many napkins.
The next couple of hours I continued to pass the time by re-watching Free Solo on my phone. A particular quote from Alex Honnold about his approach to life spoke to me in relation to my struggles in looking forward to the journey ahead. “It’s about being a warrior…This is your cause and you’ll pursue it with excellence. You face your fear because your goal demands it. That is the warrior spirit.” Well, time to be the warrior…but first, I have an easy night’s rest ahead in a comfortable cabin.
Once it was time to check in, I bumped into CJ, also looking to check-in to a cabin for the night. In fact, it turns out we were to be in neighbouring cabins. He had just experienced a very rough day, having his bear canister along with his re-food resupply, first aid kit and toiletries stolen from the Red’s Meadow campground bear box in the morning. “God, people can be the worst!”, I thought to myself. He was on the verge of quitting the whole journey right then and there, but shared that he then saw me and changed his mind. That was nice to hear. And given how I’d been feeling, the timing couldn’t have been better for me either. Luckily upon regaling his dilemma in the common eating area, a hiker couple finishing up their journey leant him their bear canister for the remainder of his trip. Between their generosity, food he scrounged from the hiker donation box and a tonne I also donated from my overstocked resupply, he was able to almost completely recover from the incident. And just like that, humanity is redeemed.
After settling into his cabin, we talked about my itinerary for a spell. I can make my resupply hotel booking in Independence that I have in 10 days, if I achieve 13 miles per day moving forward. Very doable. I’ve worked out my camping spots for the next three nights leading up to Muir Trail Ranch (MTR), where I will also resupply. Two of them will be the same of CJ, so I will also have a camping buddy. And as CJ continued to rummage through my excess food, spread out on my cabin floor, we talked spirituality and about how grateful we both are to have met on this trip. He went on to confide in me that after losing his original hiking partner, that he was feeling down. On his ascent up Donahue Pass he received a text from his father telling him that he would meet someone else to walk with and not 30-minutes later, we met at the top of the pass. I too felt lucky to be starting this next leg of the journey with some moral support.
Later I ordered burgers and a salad for dinner and talked to other PCT & JMT hikers. I called Christina using CJ’s phone (Verizon is king of reception out here and I’m not on it) and after a quick shower, headed to my cabin, eager for an early night ahead of my biggest hike day yet, 15 miles (24 km) to Virginia Lake.
I woke early this morning, hitting the trail at 5:15 am. It was still dark, so I walked by headlamp for a good 45 minutes before the sun started to rise. Today was going to be a taxing climb of over 15 miles (24 km), so I wanted to get a jump-start.
As the trail started to wake up and other hikers passed, I offered my usual good mornings with a smile. The first couple of guys I met walking the same direction as me, were Brooke and Scott. They both looked the part of weathered hikers and were hiking the JMT southbound as well, but had started at a later trailhead than me. They were also moving at a much faster pace, looking to complete it in just 12 days. When they heard my accent, Scott asked, “Australian? Everybody loves Aussies!” Glad to be out of here with people feeling that way.
In general, hikers seemed more polite and responsive on this side of Red’s Meadow. Being the middle section leading to Muir Trail Ranch (MTR), perhaps it separates the more seasoned and committed hikers to those on shorter trips. Whatever the reason, I continued to pass lovely people today. I met a JMT section-hiker in her sixties who didn’t have a name. “Just Deb is what they call me”, she explained. And so I did, replying with “Happy trails, Just Deb”.
There was also group of thru-hikers who had started in Kennedy Meadows (the beginning gateway to The Sierras) and 17 days later were on their final day, crossing the finishing line in Red’s Meadow. “We’re equally excited and completely bummed”, shared one of the guys. There are so many interesting people out here of different ages and different walks of life, each hiking for their own reasons. It makes for a very colourful and community-feeling trail.
The terrain was tough today, but I continued to make good time, arriving at Lake Virginia around 12:15pm having clocked 15-odd miles (24 km) in 7 hours. Not bad. The wind was gusting and dark clouds were forming all around the lake. I found a campsite, but since there was no sign yet of CJ and I was unsure if he had a better spot in mind (having stayed here before), I decided to wait, prepping my tent for a quick set up in case the weather broke and I needed shelter. He arrived about 30 minutes later and so we moved to a better, more protected spot (glad I waited), set up camp, ate lunch and I sat by the lake filming time lapses on my phone and journaling, while CJ fished.
Later, as the evening drew in, we talked about itinerary plans and he shared that he was feeling pretty over his experience of the trail, given all the things that have gone wrong for him along the way. He had decided to move on after he reaches Vermillion Valley Resort (VVR). This would mean a different pace moving forward for me, staying at different camping grounds. And so, after dinner we wished each other well and I firmed up in my mind my plan to move faster than my original itinerary had me going. The idea would be more hiking, less camping, which suits me much better. We shall see how I go physically. Despite feeling a little sad to have lost my company, I’m looking forward to seeing what comes for me on this journey.
In the middle of the night I woke to pee and was dazzled by the full moon light illuminating the entire lake. Awed as I stood, the surrounding mountains resembling silver towers, textured with black shadows highlighting their rugged terrain, like grand guardians keeping their watchful eye over me. Between them and endless stars, I’m thinking this is a hell of a step up from my apartment bathroom back in Hollywood.
I fell back asleep dreaming of my nephews and my family. When I woke in the morning I felt an emptiness, like I have missed so much of their lives. That this time is precious and I’ll never get it back. I felt an urge to get back to Australia soon and to be with family once more. Perhaps last night’s moonlight was beginning to shine on what my real priorities are.
Today was a day completely on my terms, from the miles I clocked to the campsite I choose. It felt good to tackle Silver Pass early (over it by 8am) and then to keep going way past Silver Pass Lake, which was the campground CJ and I had planned on staying. After the pass, I bumped into Eliza and Erin, a couple I briefly met upon arriving at Lake Virginia yesterday. They were filtering water by a creek and Eliza yelled out, “Is that Sasha?!”. They were both so warm and welcoming. We talked about California versus Maine (where they were from) and about their experience doing the JMT a second time (they last did it 10 years ago). Their warmth left me in such a great mood. Fuel for what would be a big day of hiking ahead.
As I continue down the very long descent from Silver Pass, a large downed tree trunk surrounded by shrubs caught my eye just off the trail. A bathroom break perhaps? Up to this point, the trauma of doing my business back in Rosalie Lake had me avoiding going out here at all. Today though I took it nice and slow and have to say, my backcountry bathroom game is getting on point.
After stopping for lunch at a creek at the Vermillion Valley Resort (VVR) trail junction, I reviewed my map to get a handle on the afternoon. I had decided to forego the 14-mile (22 km) round-trip to VVR as part of my JMT experience, instead continuing along the trail towards my next resupply. The question was, would I continue on today.
A Spam, cheese and Cheetos tortilla in my belly, I decided to brave the next ascent. With freshly filtered water, I dug my heels in, battling slowly up the brutal 2,000 foot (609 meter) incline of Bear Ridge Trail. My body already tired, it was tough a tough climb. You might even say that the ascent was a “bear” to get up (you know, if you want to get punched). Despite the difficulty, it did feel good to keep going. To take control of my own itinerary and to go my own way. I think deep down this is what I needed to do and in doing so, I really felt connected to the “Little Sasha” inside of me. Truth be told, I found myself often checking in with my young self, interacting with and asking him about what he wants to do. In fact, it was this “Little Sasha”, or Little Dude (LD), who ultimately chose the campground for the night. A solitary, single tent site, not far from a running creek. When it was Adult Sasha who cautioned against being alone because I wanted to avoid the loneliness, LD thought it would be fun! And fun it was, setting up camp while listening to music playing out loud on my phone speaker, bathing in the nearby creek and eating delicious Kung Pao beef with a tortilla and a small bag of Cheetos for dinner, while watching Captain America Civil War’s airport fight scene. Connecting to my young self is about a beautiful and real an experience I can ask for out here.
All-in-all a massive day for me. 19 miles (30.6 km), hiking just shy of 12 hours. My biggest trail day yet, and definitely within spitting distance to reaching MTR tomorrow, a day early as I was hoping for. Go Little Dude!
I slept really well last night. Perhaps it was the sound of the creek drowning out all of the little bumps in the night. Perhaps it was the sense that I, or LD, had chosen wisely and that this campsite was going to look after me. Whatever the reason, one thing’s for sure. When I went to pack up camp this early morning, not not having to worry about bothering anyone else was glorious!
Today on the trail my body felt more tired. Despite that, I urged up on Selden Pass, weathering aggressive swarms of mosquitoes and an often sketchy path (thanks Guthook app for keeping me on the trail!). Aside from my cartoonish screams at the bug swarms, I really did enjoy the morning ascent and when I check in with LD on the way up, he giggled thinking about hiking. A good sign I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.
I reached the top of the pass around 10am to spectacular views of Marie Lake on the north-side. As I approached, a young lady at the top congratulated me on reaching the JMT southbound half-way point. I had no idea, and so let out a “wahoo!” The girls’s name was was Lea and she was hiking the JMT northbound. She warned me of some nasty weather that she had to endure and advised me to camp at the bottom of passes each night, both to protect me from storms and to make knocking over passes each day earlier possible (again, to avoid afternoon storms). Her friend, Rachel arrived a moment later and we shot the shit about JMT life, had a good laugh, wished each other luck and they moved on to swim in the beautiful Lake Marie below.
Before I made my way down, I also said hello to a couple from Oakland, California who were also traveling southbound. We traded advice on bear activity that we’d both picked up along our travels and they introduced themselves as their trail names names, Sage (male) & Cavern (female). Trail names are common to hear on thru-hikes. They are like nicknames, typically bestowed by fellow long-distance or thu-hikers, which tell part of a story about who that hiker is. The names could be something fun that describes a personality quirk, or might spell out an inside joke between hikers about an experience they had together. Since this was my first long-distance hike, I was yet to earn one, but damned if it wasn’t on my mind constantly. I’ve heard horror stories of awful trail names that were given and stuck! I wanted mine to be something cool like Coyote or Skywalker. Instead I was worried I’d be stuck with something like Clumsy or Oops.
When I finally arrived at Muir Trail Ranch (MTR) around 1pm, I was surprised at how friendly the staff were. I’d read horror stories online about how they hated hikers there. That was not my experience at all. After picking up my resupply, the woman at the counter kindly showed me where everything was. Drinking water, trash, sorting tables, gas canister recycling boxes, a power charging station, and where to put my excess food, for donating to the Fresno homeless.
The sorting tables were in a bit of a donation frenzy, as I once again culled what I didn’t need. Other hikers, with their fresh resupply, were doing the same, while those who had finished their sorting, circled the tables like vultures picking at a carcass. I got to talking to a couple of northbound guys who warned me of the steep passes ahead and picked away at my donation bucket as they did. One of them had not thru-hiked before and assured me that if he can do it, I have nothing to worry about. “We’re made to walk”, he went on. “So hiking is a natural state for humans.” I can’t argue with that.
I also go to talking to a young freewheeling girl who spent her time, it seemed, traveling. She recently spent a year in Australia (Melbourne, Perth, Margaret River and Broome), New Zealand and Hawaii before starting on this journey at Kennedy Meadows and ending up here at MTR 24 days later. “I’ve had time to clear my head and now have decided I’m moving on”, she shared. “I’m leaving this trail and going to Alaska.” It struck me how cool it was that she was happy to pull the plug on such a committed adventure because it was no longer filling her needs. “I weigh up what’s making me feel happy versus whether I’m experiencing anything new. And if I’m not, I’m out.” Why waste time, right?
I also met Austin and Bennett, a couple of southbounders, who were rummaging through everyone’s excess food, and I once again bumped into Steve from Tuolumne Meadows. It always makes me happy to see a friendly face out here on the trail.
MTR was a quick-stop destination, designed for resupplying hikers, giving them a comfortable place to do just that and then to move on, with no real camping ground available. I finished packing my resupply, bought some toothpaste at their limited store, checked the weather and weighed my pack (just under 40 pounds, or 18kg, including water and 8 days of food), before heading out to find a campsite for the night. Thankfully the clouds that have been teasing bad weather all day held together and I reached a nice spot on the creek about a mile from MTR. Something told me to move on though, and after gut-checking with LD, I decided to make for a site a further 2 miles (3 km) ahead, just over the border of the King’s Canyon National Forest, which made me feel a definite connection to Christina, having stayed there together before.
On the way, I passed a handful of horse convoys, presumably short day saddlers from MTR. For all the horse shit I’ve seen littering the trail, it’s weird, up to this point I hadn’t physically seen any horses. They’re around for sure, but I guess they’re good at hiding, like a lot of the wildlife out here. Eventually I arrived at the campground. It was beautiful, sitting right by a creek bank and well-protected by the surrounding trees. The reviews of the campsite on my Guthooks app say the spot is bear-prone, but at this point I just have to be as cautious with my food as I can be and try not to worry too much about it. Perhaps the same goes for weather, which I understand is going to be a little hairy from here on in.
As I was setting up camp, I had some ideas on how to better pack my backpack to stave off water, should it rain and I need to keep moving. They’re not perfect solutions, but hell, between bears, mountains passes over 12,000 feet (3,658 meters) and up to 8 days alone in the wilderness before the next resupply, I guess I’m learning to be flexible.
A rough night sleep and I woke at 5am, ready to pack out camp. My body was very tired today. Perhaps it was the lack of sleep or maybe the hiking days are just catching up with me. Whatever the reason, I found myself out of breath, even on straight stretches. Every step took effort. But step I did, with the goal of Evolution Lake 11 miles (17.5 km) away on my mind.
In the morning I met a strange man named Joseph. He wore thick glasses and a wide-brimmed, oddly balanced white hat. He seemed to hike faster than me, but then each time he caught up, he would stop. A little eccentric maybe, but friendly all the same. I also met a warm soul in his late fifties, named Roger. He wore all green and sported a trucker hat with the U.S. flag on it, but in place of its 50 stars were little-biddy fish. Adorable. He told me I had a lot to look forward to on the trail ahead. When I shared that I was a little nervous about ascents and terrain, he said, “Don’t be”. He went on to explain that that all the passes were well-maintained and that I’ll be absolutely fine. “Just go at your own pace and remember to enjoy it all.” The way my body felt today, I have to say it was exactly what I needed to hear. I also passed some women on the trail wearing perfume. It stood out so vividly because it was so odd, so out of place in the wild and I hadn’t smelt anything man-made like that in so long. Guess I’m getter more used to natural living than I realised.
In addition to some serious ascents on the trail today, I also had to dodge several wire fences (apparently there to keep the stock from escaping) and I did my very first proper stream crossing. No rocks to jump on this time! No, today I’d be getting wet, wading through the rapid water, using my trekking poles to steady me against the strong current. On the other side of the rushing creek I’d just crossed, a couple of guys approached asking, “Did you take your shoes off for the crossing?” I pointed down to my drenched shoes and socks. “I would have if I were smart”, I replied. They laughed, shaking their heads as they walked on.
Thankfully, the weather held together as I made my way up almost 13 miles (21 km) to Evolution Lake. When I finally reached there around midday, my body was thrashed. Dark clouds in the sky, along with some drips of rain cemented my decision to call it a day and set up camp, instead of continuing on to attempt Muir Pass ahead. As I finished pitching the tent, the rain began to fall…of course! I crawled inside my shelter, but found myself shaking, feeling usually cold. Could that be a sign of a little altitude sickness? Whatever the cause, I layered up in my warmest camping clothes and nestled in my sleeping quilt, slowly drifting off into a 30-minute nap. When I woke, I felt like a new man! Guess it was just physical exhaustion from the sleepless nights, altitude and change in pace over the last few days. Yet another reason to stop at half a hike day today.
As I lay in my tent, the patter of rain all around me, it occurred to me that I feel more connected to myself than when I was camping with a buddy. That’s the point of this journey in the first place and certainly how I originally planned the trip. Perhaps relying on someone else is a comfort blanket of sorts to me. Maybe I needed to break away from the company of others to realise what I needed and to have the experience I wanted, so I’m very glad that’s what I’ve done.
I spent the better part of the afternoon bunkered down from the rain, rewatching Breaking Bad episodes on my phone. When the weather finally cleared, I took out my noise-cancelling headphones and was surprised to hear…snoring. What the fuck?! I stepped out of my tent, realising that some hikers had pitched tent near mine while while it was raining and I hadn’t heard them. Guess my little private stretch of Evolution Lake isn’t so private anymore.
Although it was the only 5pm, I took the break in the weather as an opportunity to make dinner in case the rain returned. Tonight’s menu, chicken dumplings with veggies and a tortilla. YUM! And as I sat on my bear canister enjoying the meal, I noticed something beautiful. Not only had the rain stopped, but the sun broke through patched clouds and the lake water was mirror still. It was breathtaking and all mine to enjoy in (thankfully) absolute silence. I stood to take in all it’s calm, yet wild magnificence. It was perfect. I raised a hand to my heart and spoke silent gratitude to the trail for giving me this moment. I took a breath and in the silence a voice spoke softly in my head. It said, “There is nothing to be afraid of. Just keep moving forward”. And so it appears the trail has given me its blessing as my journey continues.
Out of breath and physically weak this morning, I immediately started my ascent up to Wanda Lake. Arriving I was smacked in the face with a whole lot of awe. “Wow”, Is all I could say over and over again. “Wow”, as the sunrise painted the lake’s surrounding mountains with peach orange dipped in fire. “Wow”, as I walked a path closely hugging the bank rim of the majestic, still water. “Wow”, as I glanced up ahead towards Muir Pass, my first destination for the day. All that “wow” gave me a little moral encouragement for sure, which carried me up the next ascent to to the top of the pass, where I was about to get another boost.
Atop the pass is a small stone hut, built in the 1930’s to celebrate conservationist and trail namesake, John Muir and to provide hikers a place to find safety in storms. When I arrived, a young couple was just leaving, allowing me time to really soak in the character of the hut alone. There was something special about this place. Perhaps it was the hut’s long history with hikers. Perhaps it was just nice to be inside for the first time in almost a week. Whatever it was, I just loved being there and soaked it in a good twenty minutes in silence.
As I was leaving, two young ladies arrived and kindly took my picture. A rarity on this trip so far. The hike down Muir Pass was a tricky one. The path was lined with small, shattered rocks, creating unstable footing. Each step took all my energy to keep from slipping. All it takes is one false step to fall after all. That step for me came about an hour into my descent, stepping down from a steep, high step. My footing gave, toppling my full body sideways over my trekking poles, 40 pounds of backpack pushing me aggressively towards the ledge. I let out an involuntary, but short scream as I almost toppled right over the steep edge into a long fall below. Thankfully my hands caught grip on a nearby rock and I was able to balanced my body. A surge of relief washed over me as I lay, face first, looking down over a 10 meter rocky ledge, which I had narrowly avoided.
I dug my trekking poles into the rocks beneath and lifted myself to my feet. I stood a moment, collected my thoughts and checked on some pain coming from my right-hand index finger. It must have been caught between some rocks on the way down. Thankfully it was fine. I was fine…I think. A fall on a rocky mountainside and I was only concerned about a scraped finger? Wow, I got lucky. My eyes darted down to the ledge. I had narrowly escaped some real damage and was about to keep hiking like nothing had happened. I looked up towards a hiker in the distance ahead who hadn’t clocked my yell, or my fall. Suddenly I started to feel very alone.
I closed my eyes for a beat, thanked whoever was listening and continued down the brutal and long descent ahead. It occurred to me as I did that if the descent on this pass is this long, it might mean that the ascent on the next pass is equally so. In other words, tomorrow I’m potentially in for one killer day which I just might not be able to handle. A thought amplified by my near miss on the ledge, as emotions started to swirl around in my belly. Fighting off tears, I continued on, wondering why I was crying. It clearly wasn’t about something as silly as the difficulty of an upcoming ascent. Rather, I’d just experienced something that shook me and had a build up of tension that was finally finding a way to release itself.
I checked my right shorts pocket. My phone was okay. Thank God! My full body weight had landed on it when I fell and for sure was at risk of being a smashed mess. That phone is my navigation, my communication, my camera to capture memories of this trip and my solace against loneliness at night, watching downloaded movies and TV. I honestly don’t know if I could have handled losing it. Then, the gratitude of that very thought cheered me right up and, as I went to put the phone back in my pocket, a deer appeared not 5 meters away. Instinctually I hit record on the phone’s video camera, as I continued to walk past with it not moving at all. It instead just stared at me as I passed within a meter of it. And just like that, the heaviness of tough moments on the trail are instantly turned around with remarkable moments of nature, just being nature. I’m grateful for the experiences I’m having on this journey. So many challenges, but so many blessings too. I’m grateful to be walking this trail, protected each step of the way.
After a short break for lunch (beef jerky, cheese and Cheetos on a tortilla) I made my way into the day’s final miles looking for a campsite. On the way, I stopped to refill my water bottles at a creek I was crossing. Kneeled down, holding one of my 1 litre plastic Smart Water bottles, my hand slipped and the bottle caught itself in the waterfall’s current. “Shit!”, I yelled as the water bottle charged down the waterfall. It was being carried away, out of sight forever. But then, with luck on my side, it became caught in a small pond, out of arm’s reach, but still close enough to give me a chance at getting it back…I would however be unable to do it alone. Sitting quietly nearby, a young man in his twenties was taking in nature with his back to me. I politely interrupted his chill by asking for his help with my plan to retrieve the bottle. “Geez, you wouldn’t want to lose one of those out here”, he said, agreeing to help. He wasn’t wrong. Losing a water bottle could be bloody dangerous out here. And so, with his help, we were going to give retrieving it a shot.
I ran through the plan with him. Firstly I would leap onto a nearby rock, which is closer to the pond. Then, standing on top if it, he would pass me my trekking poles. I would then use the poles to jimmy the bottle into a place that it could be grabbed, either by him or by me. We agreed it was a good plan and so I braced myself to jump onto the rock. It was, um, inelegant. You know, less Jason Bourne leaping between buildings, more Larry, Curly and Moe walking through a plate glass window. Awkward as it may have been, I now stood on the rock over the water. A victory. He passed me the poles and it worked like a charm. After a few brief moments I was able to retrieve the bottle. The plan had worked!
Afterwards, I introduced myself. His name was David, and he had done the JMT southbound before. I asked him about any problem passes ahead and dug for ideas on itinerary planning. He was so encouraging and with his help that I was able to shake off the daunting feeling of the upcoming passes over the next few days. Yet more moments to be grateful for.
Around 2:30pm, I decided to call it a day, worried that the forecast rain would soon hit. I found a pretty spot right near a meadow with a creek and wild life, very postcard picturesque. It was about 4 or 5 five miles (6.5 – 8 km) from the Golden Staircase, a notoriously steep ascent at the base of Mather Pass, which I will be ascending tomorrow. As I pitched my tent, I realised it’s getting super dirty inside. I’m thinking my luxury item on the next trip will be a Dustbuster.
Christina is camping herself tonight in Ojai, about 90-minutes from LA, so she won’t have phone reception. I guess this means I won’t hear from her, beyond some brilliant GPS texts she sent this afternoon. Her texts have always been my warmth at the end of a day, so it feels strange knowing we won’t exchange any tonight. I might have to pull out the big guns and watch Thor: Ragnarok to keep my cheer high.
As I was approaching the Golden Staircase below Mather Pass this morning, words from a PCT hiker at camp last night kept echoing in my mind. “My condolences”, she said. “For what this staircase is gonna do to your legs”. She wasn’t the first to warn me about the infamous incline. David warned me yesterday after helping rescue my water bottle and several other hikers along the way have also done their best to put the fear of God into me about it. And so I was mentally preparing all night, relieved I only needed to reach the top of the staircase at Palisade Lakes and would be done for the day. It would be a painful, but short day…or so I thought.
Ascending the staircase was hard with all its loose rocks and tiny little switchbacks, but it wasn’t THAT hard. The most challenging thing for me was the difficulty I had breathing above 10,000 feet (305 meters) elevation. This has proved to be pretty typical for me on this trail though. Along the way I received some texts from Christina and my friend back in Australia, Laith. Those texts became nice opportunities to stop, reply and take a moment to enjoy the views. It’s not that they were sweeping mind you, but definitely beautiful, as has most been on this trail.
When I eventually reached Palisade Lakes, it was pretty. Certainly I could have stopped there for the night, but given it was only 10am and the sky was perfectly, cloudlessly blue, I’d pretty much already made my decision to continue up Mather Pass. And continue up the pass I did. It. Was. Rough. Lots of loose rocks, playing havoc with my balance. Lots of mini-breaks resting on my trekking poles to catch my breath. Even occasional gusts of freezing cold wind, which would trigger audible gasps out of my mouth, sounding a lot like half-formed swear words. “Fu…” “Shi…”. If I’ve acted tough in my life, the ascent up Mather Pass was not one of those times. As I neared the last mile and a half, the loose rocks grew bigger, making the climb more perilous. The constant switchbacks never seemed to end, despite passing hikers assuring me I was almost there. But that “almost there” felt like it never came. Looking like a sack of loose sand, one foot in front of the other I pushed on.
When I finally did reach the top of the pass, I cheered out-loud, asking a lovely couple at the top to take my picture. They assured me the way down would be way easier, and after taking a moment to appreciate a truly stunning, barren mountain view on both sides of the pass, I bounded down the other side. A spring in my step. Owning a feeling of great accomplishment. As I descended, I considered where I should camp for the night, now that I’d blown way past my planned Palisade Lake campsite. And as I calculated miles and terrain in my head, I had a bold realisation. At this current pace I could potentially make Rae Lakes tomorrow, allowing me to reach my resupply/zero day at the town of Independence three days early. I re-did the math, thought about my physical capability, then did the math again. It was actually a solid plan, providing I could change my accommodation booking of course.
As I reached the base of the descent, I passed a crystal clear, aqua-green lake and, sitting at its banks, shoes off, relaxed as all get out, a young man and his twenties sat on the grass playing the guitar. The first thought that came to me was, “How the bloody hell did this guy carry his guitar on the trial?” I stopped and asked if he wouldn’t mind my listening to him play. He happily agreed and I relaxed as the ethereal sound of the first music I’d properly listened to in weeks washed over me.
The guitarist’s name was Francis and his long hair, beard and Jimi Hendrix shirt perfectly complemented his blissed out presence. After he finished playing, I asked him about bringing his guitar on the trail. He shared that his playing brings his two favourite things together, music and mountains. He then spoke about his philosophy on life. That we are here to encourage and empower others and that the best way to do that is by looking after yourself, by living our best life. Inspiration through example. He went on to say that his grandmother lived to be 101 years old and that she said the secret to life is to just get started. So, for any thoughts of my own procrastination I might be wrestling with, that’s some sage advice from a man in the mountains playing his guitar and his century-old grandmother. A beautiful, beautiful moment. Perhaps one of the great memories of this journey, full of incongruity, philosophy and hope. The physical punishment of ascending Mather Pass seemed all too worth it.
The stretch from Mather Pass down to the tree line, perhaps 1.5 miles (2.5 km) away, was exposed as fuck! The afternoon sun did a good job of cooking me, but honestly I was just so happy the weather was holding together, despite forecasts predicting rain and storms all week. Besides, I had my sunscreen and my trusty sun hoodie protecting me…when it wasn’t blowing off my head, that is. Along the way, I found some shade and ate lunch (Spam, cheese, cheese crackers and a tortilla with veggie water). I texted the Mount Williamson Hotel and Basecamp in Independence a date change request on my GPS device (awesome they have a number for this sort of communication) and worked on a plan for what I’d do if they had no vacancies. As I did so, the sounds of military jet fighters doing practice flights reverberated throughout the surrounding mountains. A familiar sound, having spent time near a military training base in Israel back in the 90s. I finished lunch. Enjoyed one last look at the dramatic mountains, cutting a jagged line into the blue sky above them and continue on.
When I finally reached my new planed campground at the very bottom of the long walk down from the pass, a sign at a nearby intersection spun me another change of plans for the day. The local ranger had left warning of a bear problem in the area. Apparently earlier in the month someone had allowed a bear to gain access to their food and now it associated the area and humans with feeding time. That kind of headache I could do without. So, I once again looked to my map and re-assessed my options, my back and feet now aching from a long day of demand. The next best option for me was about 2 miles (3 km) away. Only problem was it was that it was on the back of 1,000 feet (305 meters) of elevation gain, heading up towards Pinchot Pass. More up? Today?! I drank some water, sucked up my excuses and dug my trekking poles into the ground before me, as I begun my ascension once more.
On the way up, I passed a lovely woman who was also “questioning her life choices”, having also done Mather Pass earlier in the day and was now braving this new incline. Her name was Nikki and she gave me some great itinerary ideas for after my re-supply in Independence, leading up to finishing on Mount Whitney. She also gave my new plan of making it to Rae Lakes tomorrow a big thumbs up. Nice to get the validation, after changing so much of my itinerary today.
By the time I reached my campground near a lake 2 miles (3 km) from Pinchot Pass, I had ‘clocked almost 20 miles (32 km). A huge day! If I can do this today, trekking the 17 miles (27.5 km) ahead to Rae Lakes tomorrow will be a cake walk. I set up camp, cooked dinner (beef stew and a Mini Snickers), brushed my teeth and put extra care in placing my bear canister far away from my tent. I could do without any visitors tonight.
An early start, hitting the trial by 4:50am. Feeling weak and out of breath once again on the way up Pinchot Pass, but I managed it well, reaching the top before sunrise. It was a breathtaking and solitary experience. The whole mountain was entirely mine. I mean it, no one approaching on either side. Not a sound to be heard, except for a gentle breeze and the beating of my heart. It was a magnificent way to start the day. Where it would go over the next couple of hours though, would test me.
At the bottom of the pass, I had…well, a toilet emergency. I won’t go into details, but let’s just say my body needed what it needed and timing or warning weren’t on its mind. Thankfully I had a wag bag (poop bag) on hand and it was early enough that no-one was on the trails yet, because I was in a VERY exposed area. I’ve learned that a flexibility is the key to enjoying the wilderness, so I tried to stay open to that idea, but it’s safe to say some crankiness seeped through. This wasn’t helped by some GPS technical issues that seemed to compound the situation. It turned out that my texts weren’t being sent. Receiving them was fine, but I had no way to respond, which is not ideal when you’ve just changed your entire itinerary and need to communicate about it with hotel bookings and loved ones.
After several hours of walking alone, powered it seems by swear words at everything technological, I passed a man in his twenties and asked if he happened to have a Garmin device. His name was John, a JMT northbounder aiming to complete the trail in 2 weeks. He was also my saviour, because he did have a Garmin and agreed to let me use it to text my wife, so, you know, she doesn’t think I’m ghosting her. I connected with her, sending my love and asking for her help with hotel booking changes and reaching out to Garmin to solve the texting issue. Thankfully she received the message, responding ten minutes later to let me know she was taking care of everything. How many times can I say it? I got me a good one!
I was on a mission for the rest of the day, focused on traversing a total of 17 miles (27.5 km) to Rae Lakes before the clouds that had been with me since sunrise became a storm. Between that focus, my morning bathroom blow out and the GPS technical issues, I found myself visited by very familiar feelings of fury. Not anger, but fury. I haven’t felt much of that since I’ve been out here on a trail, and on the occasion it has come up it’s been fleeting. But this morning I felt it and felt it and felt it some more. Several hours of just letting the fury ride. Maybe my journey isn’t about escaping all my regular emotions, but giving them some space to be. Perhaps it’s about incorporating them into my life instead of escaping them. What I do know is that it felt good to just feel, as my body ached and I moved through the miles.
After I finally reached the bottom of the descent from Pinchot’s Pass at 12,050 feet (3,673 meters) down to 8,534 (2,601 meters), I came across a suspended wire bridge. I stepped up onto it and it swayed and wobbled, Indiana Jones-style, as I crossed it. But no sooner had I dipped my water filter into the creek below on the other side than I was climbing again. Climbing, climbing, climbing! Honestly, I’m pretty over climbing right now. All day, up and down. It’s gruelling.
Along the way, a pair of girls ahead of me stopped and asked if I wouldn’t mind taking their picture. I did and they offered to take mine. As they did so, one of them asked if I was doing the JMT. When I replied yes, she laughed, “You look too clean to be a thru-hiker.” It’s funny. I’m anything but clean today, but glad the illusion is working for me. I then asked if they too were doing the JMT. “We’ve done the PCT and JMT, and now we’re just out here”, the girl shared. “Oh wow”, I responded. “You guys are like hard core”. And then, without missing a beat, she hit me with, “Well, you are too!” With the climbing and miles I’ve been clocking over the last few days, I guess I am.
I finally arrived at Rae Lakes around 1:30pm, way before my projected time. I’d been huffing it since 5am to avoid the rain and am grateful to say that no sooner had I pitched my tent and eaten a fast lunch (cheese & cheese crackers on a tortilla) than the sky opened up. I mean like, wow. Talk about being looked after. I mean, seriously. I was huddled down inside my tent watching Avengers: Infinity War as the heavens came down all around me. A storm that was dying to hit all day, finally had the opportunity. Just like at Rosalie Lake, lightning and thunder struck directly overhead, rain pelting my tent’s rainfly, wind aggressively flapping the material holding my shelter together. It was a tense situation. Only this time my attitude had shifted 360 degrees. Instead of being scared, I just let it happen. It was almost exciting. Perhaps I’m getting more used to the wilderness or maybe my adventurous side is coming out.
As the rain eventually cleared in the late afternoon, I found my tent almost floating in a rain puddle that had gathered beneath one side of it. Thankfully, no water had found its way into the tent itself. I carved out some moat paths in the dirt for the water build up to flow out of, stopping for a moment to soak in my surroundings. The campground at Middle Rae Lake is huge, accommodating presumably dozens of campers. It’s a great spot, right on the stunning lake itself, but it’s certainly busier (and louder) than I’m used to to now. I haven’t stayed in such a bustling place since Little Yosemite Valley on my first night on the trail.
The remainder of daylight time I spent filtering water, cooking dinner (chicken dumplings with a tortilla and a Mini Snickers) and apologising in advance to my surrounding neighbours for the noise I might make packing up camp so early tomorrow morning. Since I have two passes to clear tomorrow and I need to be at the hotel pickup point by 3pm, I’m not taking any chances by waking up late.
As the sun disappeared over the surrounding mountains, I lay in my tent dreaming about the fresh peach and the can of club soda I’ll hopefully indulge in on my zero day. The familiar buzz of an incoming message on my GPS rings. It’s Christina and she wants to let me know that she plans on picking me up in Lone Pine at the end of this journey. Wow, what a beautiful thing to look forward to and bookend to this story. I’m a lucky man.
I was woken in the night by a rock avalanche nearby, across the lake. Yet had another reminder that I’m out in the wild. It didn’t help my broken sleep throughout the night much, which likely contributed to how I felt going up Glen Pass this morning. I was a little weak and a lot out of breath (I see a pattern here). Remind me next time I plan a thru-hike like this to bring an oxygen mask. I don’t know if these passes are getting harder or if my body is just tired. Everything hurts this morning. Every step hurts. It seems like the climb never ends, then I look down to see some horse shit on the trail in front of me and I’m like, “How the bloody hell do horses even manoeuvre on this sort of terrain?” Loose rocks Tetris together to make up the jagged path, broken up by often very steep steps. At one point I looked up to see a plane flying overhead. “Bloody hell, they’ve got the right idea”, I whisper through my heavy breaths.
Since my early days on the trail, I’ve been talking out loud to myself between often long stretches of no human contact. I’m finding it’s happening more and more as each day passes. Sometimes just as external encouragement to make it through a difficult section. Other times, I guess it’s just to break the silence. This morning the talking helped me make those final steps to the top, eventually arriving at 7:45am. It was absolutely stunning up there. And, just like Pinchot Pass yesterday, dead quiet. No hiker voices. No bird sounds or wildlife of any kind. Just my now slowing breaths and the occasional gust of wind.
I took in the beauty, dropping my jaw from every direction and then looked down to my feet, feeling a bout of dizziness as the tease of vertigo unbalanced me. The footing at the top of Glen Pass is barely more than a meter wide. It felt like standing on a razor’s edge. So it seemed I wouldn’t be staying up there long. Besides, I still had another pass to go, so took my last moments to enjoy the rising sun, splashing scarlet and tangerine across the surrounding mountains, then made my way down the other side.
As I was leaving a couple in their late forties/early fifties approached from the other side. “So you’re the award winner!, bellowed the man from a good 50 meters away. “First person to the top of pass today.” I smiled. I’m glad I was the first to the top because of the amount of out-loud swearing coming out of my mouth on my way up. Could have been embarrassing with an audience. I approached the couple and we briefly exchanged info on the trails each of us were taking. When I mentioned my upcoming Kearsarge Pass, he warned me that it was going to be long and arduous. Shit. I was kind of hoping for an easy ascent, following this one. He then went on to recommend a taco truck in town, when I get to Independence. Me? I just wanted a shower and some clean clothes. That said, I’m so dirty at this stage that it’s barely bothering me anymore. All of the weird, funky smells have kind of merged into each other, creating this odd acceptable filth.
I continued down the north side of Glen Pass, bumping into a man in his twenties. He had been forced to abandon his hike over the pass yesterday, when a storm rolled in out of nowhere. He had to bolt back down the way he came, camping at a lower altitude overnight. The weather is being constantly on my mind this trip and the one thing I know for sure is that you do not want to be caught at the top of a mountain pass when lightning’s involved.
When I finally did reach the Kearsarge Pass Junction, it became obvious that the man in the couple from earlier wasn’t joking. The climb ahead was indeed long and arduous. I had a lot of time, so it wouldn’t have been so bad, but pretty serious-looking storm clouds were looming right over the pass itself. If I took too long, I’d be at risk of being at the top when a storm breaks. Obviously some serious potential danger there. And so I pressed onwards, upwards and upwards some more. “Just to make it to the top before the storm hits”, I kept telling myself out-loud, moving forward inch-by-inch, step-by-step. Pushing through the hurt, focusing on “enjoying the suck”. And as I reached the final 100 or so meters, sweat dripping from my forehead, my heart beating out of my chest, I began to feel the patter of light rain. Stepping onto the top of the pass moments later, I peered over the other side. A curtain of rain was heading my way and in that moment the sky decided to open up, bucketing rain down on me. I quickly dropped my pack, put on my rain jacket, snapped a photo and hustled down the other side.
As I picked up momentum, I strangely found myself moving with a little dance in my step and wearing a big smile. With the rain menace now behind me, I kind of felt like a kid, having fun playing in the rain. It helps to know that a hot shower is coming at the end of the day. And since I hit the top of the pass around 10:30am, that meant I nailed two passes in just a few hours. Most rad. It also meant I had lots of time to make my way down the other side. Glad I did too, because Kearsarge Pass, it turns out, is even steeper, longer and tougher on the way down. Thankfully, the weather cleared right up again 20 minutes later, making the descent easier. That said, it does kind of make my muscles tired just thinking about going back over this side of the pass on Saturday, when I return to the trail. Better rest up on my zero day before braving it.
About a mile and a half from the hotel pick-up point, I stopped for a rest on a small lake below a waterfall and just enjoyed some nature and silence before continuing on. I sat on a large rock, watched a mother and baby deer play in the trees nearby and thought about how I’m feeling, getting closer to the end of my journey. Only four more hike days left after this resupply. I can’t help but feel a little sad. For now though, I have a comfortable bed and some town food to enjoy, so on I went.
Arriving to the pick-up point several hours early, I found a quiet place to eat lunch (tortillas with the usual fillings), ditch my trash (thank God I no longer have to carry that disgusting burden) and then met a handful of hikers who were also waiting for the hotel shuttle. There was John and Randy, two men in their sixties, traveling northbound. There was Flora, a southbounder in her thirties, who was also taking a zero day at the hotel tomorrow. And there was a couple in their twenties who were picking up their resupply before heading back into the wilderness.
At 3pm, we were picked up by a total character named Lone Pine Kurt. Piling into his white minivan, Kurt entertained us on our drive with stories about the area, about the town of Independence, about his former life as a pilot and about his long-term marriage to his “first (and only) wife”, Sharon. We all found ourselves bonding through our shared laughter and through the questions we each had for Kurt. I for one wanted to know more about what to expect from Mount Whitney and what the most romantic restaurant in Lone Pine is, being that’s his home. For me, planning a romantic dinner with Christina to celebrate the end of my journey is one hell of a thing to look forward to.
When we arrived at Mount Williamson Hotel and Basecamp, we were warmly greeted by its owner, Lauralyn. She is an avid hiker, having done the JMT seven times and it shows in the details of one’s stay at the hotel. In fact, she once stayed at the hotel herself as as a JMT hiker, loving it so much she and her husband Doug bought the place.
As we grabbed our packs from the van, Lauralyn brought each of us a cold beer (my first in months), then passed us clean temporary clothes to wear while our laundry was being done. This in particular was a bloody brilliant touch and and one so different to my Mammoth Lakes laundry experience, running through the hallways half-naked, as my clothes spun in wash cycle. She then told each of us our room numbers and off we went to settle in.
The moment I walked into my room, I instantly felt grateful and at home. It had everything a hiker, having been out on the trail for weeks at a time, would need. The air-conditioning was on, cooling the 33 degrees celsius temperature brutalising the valley outside. My resupply was already in my room, almost making me forget I had spent weeks preparing and mailing it to the hotel a month or so beforehand. There was a cozy couch, kitchen facilities (including fridge, stove and microwave) and ample room to store backpacks, hang gear and dry & organise one’s self for the next leg of the trail. The bathroom was pristine, complete with bath oils, loads of towels and all the soap someone who hasn’t showered in 8 days might need to resemble something human again. I was so happy to be here and spent the next hour or two FaceTiming family, before jumping into the shower. A therapeutic soul-cleansing and equally tile-filthying experience, transforming me back into a swan again. By the time I dried off, my laundry was already freshly cleaned and folded outside my room. I dressed, ready to go get some town food.
Walking down the main road of Freeway 395, I arrived at the town’s only restaurant, a cafe called Still Life, where I bumped into John and Randy from the hotel shuttle. I joined them and enjoyed a really excellent burger, Greek salad and beer over great company, before stopping at a nearby service station to grab some supplies (club soda…finally, and a bag of Ruffles chips) and heading back to the hotel room to settle in for the night.
The evening was spent organising my gear, sorting through my resupply (ditching 60% of it) and devouring more food than a human should physically be able to eat. Gone went the big bag of Ruffles and club soda. Gone went Snickers bars, a large handful of lollies and a hot chocolate from my resupply. Strangely I wasn’t really hungry, but my body just wanted to eat.
Like in Mammoth, the stimulation of having the internet, a million distractions and a belly full of sugar kept me up till late. I eventually forced myself to sleep, knowing that tomorrow Lauralyn has a birthday celebration at the hotel. Something fun to look forward to.
After a glorious night sleep, cleaned from filth in a cozy bed, I woke to sounds of guests gathering for breakfast in the common area outside. Fresh fruit, juice, bacon and scrambled eggs on a toasted muffin were all served with great care by a woman in her twenties, named Emily. John, Randy, Flora & I chewed the fat before John & Randy left again for the trail. For Flora and I, we had nowhere to be fast, so got to talking with another guest, Josh. Josh was wrestling with some personal decisions that had arisen at home, while he was out on the trail. It was pretty clear that he was in a dark place, deciding between continuing on with his hike or dealing with what he needed to back in his “real world”. There were some tears and talks about depression and loneliness. Flora and I listened, offering genuine connection before he took a walk to decide what he wanted to do. I’ve found that since being on the trail, paying attention to what’s actually important, like human interaction, like emotions and connecting has been amplified. It’s a beautiful thing and hopefully our being there helped in some small way.
I spent the rest of the morning doing some town errands, before heading out to lunch with Flora. The famous taco truck that the couple on top of Glen Pass had recommended was on the menu and after a burrito washed down with pineapple soda, Flora and I took a walk to the nearby Eastern California Museum. There I learned about legendary Sierra pioneer & explorer, Norman Clyde, about the construction of the LA aqueduct, and more about the fascinating Manzanar, the nearby Japanese-American WWII imprison camp, which first came to my attention through Ansel Adams photography. Flora and I shot the shit about career and life. Then, as we left the museum, we looked towards the Sierras only to be gobsmacked at the aggressive storms enveloping the mountain range. We couldn’t help but feel deeply grateful that we were safely down here in the valley, enjoying sunshine and not caught in the misery of what our poor fellow hikers must have been enduring. The forecast says it will mostly clear up tomorrow when I returned to the trail. Thank God! That, combined with the fact that rain held out until I hit the top of Kearsarge Pass and I didn’t have to worry about getting struck by lightning yesterday shows that the weather really has been looking out for me on this trail. Hell, even when I got caught in the hailstorm back in Rosalie Lake, or the storm over Rae Lakes, both hit just as I finished setting up camp, protecting me from the worst of it. Looking back, a guardian angel really has been taking care of me in the weather department and I will keep my fingers crossed that the same continues as I move into the final stage of my journey.
Flora and I marvelled at our luck as we decided to grab our tripods and head to the desert just beyond the border of the town (hey, it’s a tiny town) to shoot some storm cloud time lapses and continue talking about life. It turns out Flora has a lot of experience exploring personal development and shared her view that each of us has a big ball of sunshine in our chests, but that often clouds are covering the light the ball puts out. She went on to explain how we each need to find a way to clear these clouds to really let our sun shine. What a beautiful way of describing our potential, as we literally looked out over our Sierras trail home, whose covering storm was clearing by the time we were finished talking. Quick, someone call the metaphor police!
As a second storm rolled in from the eastern mountain range on the other side of the valley, lightening gently reminded us of what our cozy hotel rooms will be protecting us from. Flora quickly ran me through an exercise to help me decipher my core values. The idea was that once you have these values locked in, making life decisions becomes simpler, more precisely aiming your life towards what you REALLY want. She showed me a list of 100 words/values, which I was to whittle down to two. I’ve always been good at the process of elimination, so getting the list down to five was pretty easy. They were connection, contribution, freedom, justice, and recognition. We briefly discussed each, and I further brought those five down to three, which I will sit on overnight to land on my final two. What an appropriate exercise to take part in as I explore my own life on the trail. As hotel-owner, Lauralyn expressed in passing, “There is so much life out there in these mountains”. May I continue on the trail tomorrow sure-footed, armed with a clearer purpose in life.
Later that night, people from all over town started arriving in the common area outside to celebrate Lauralyn’s birthday. Townsfolk and hikers alike gathered with beer and wine to party over a meal of home-cooked goodness. Roast beef, potato jackets, sweet corn, salad, enchiladas and of course, cake. After nothing but freeze-dried meals and tortillas on the trail, it was an almost overwhelming buffet of flavour. Thank God there’s only three more nights in the wild until my next good meal, because I’m gonna miss this.
As my mingling with party-goers began, I said hello to Josh and met his mother, who had travelled 4 hours from Nevada today to join him. It turns out that tomorrow he will head home, saying goodbye to the trail for now. It seems like he was in a much better place than this morning and I had the chance to connect with him again. Perhaps a reminder to both of us that there are genuine people in the world who don’t want anything from you except to be good people.
I got to talking to Emily, the impressive world explorer, photographer, daughter of the hotel owners and server of our wonderful breakfast this morning. She regaled me with stories of living in Melbourne, hiking New Zealand from top to bottom and exploring pretty much all the impressive trails of the U.S., including much of the Sierras. Her boyfriend, Matthew was interested in mining for minerals & rare rocks. When I shared that my wife, Christina loved jewellery with stones in them, he generously gave me a piece of garnet and quartz that he personally mined from sections of Inyo County. I couldn’t believe how thoughtful it was, carefully wrapping the stones in toilet paper and a rubber band for the rugged trail ahead, over the coming days. I guess Josh isn’t the only one who has been blessed with a plethora of reminders of people’s selfless generosity today. It’s out there people!
As the party continued, I met hikers, locals and of course, shuttle driver Lone Pine Kurt’s “first wife”, Sharon. We sang happy birthday, ate, drank and enjoyed a true sense of community for the night. It’s fair to say that my time staying at Mount Williamson Hotel and Basecamp has been one of the warmest and most genuine hotel stays I’ve ever had. I’ll miss it as I hit the trail and beyond.
The mood was somber as I sat down to breakfast. Herb, one of the hikers also leaving today said, “The key to life is voluntary, ritual suffering”, referring to the physical and mental anguish we put ourselves through on the trail. He and his hiking partner, Ed were planning on camping at the same grounds as me tonight, about 5 miles (8 km) from the top of Forester Pass.
It was good to leave on a full belly of bacon and eggs, but I felt sad when we were dropped off at the trail head. Flora put it well, “It’s the transitions that are hard”, she stated. She’s spot on there. Transitioning out from the trail back into civilisation is weird and often confronting. Transitioning from the ‘real world’ into the backcountry on the other hand can feel like you’re losing something. It certainly was how I felt as Kurt drove the shuttle out of the trailhead carpark, leaving me there once again, carrying 40 pounds, facing down the overbearing mountain pass before me.
I started up the ascent, making excellent pace. My body felt strong. I knew it was a long way to the top, so fixed my eyes to the terrain ahead and tread the trail. In my own little focussed world, I was abruptly snapped back to my surroundings to the excited cry, “Is that Sasha?!” I looked up to see the only person who delivers these words with that enthusiastic pitch. Eliza (from Lake Virginia) and her partner, Erin. Oh, it was so nice to see their familiar, genuinely friendly faces. We exchanged quick “howzitgoings” and they went on to share that they weren’t in fact staying overnight in Independence, but instead picking up their resupply in the carpark bear box, then heading right back over Kearsarge Pass a second time in the same day. I mean, Goddamn! That’s well hardcore! Seeing them and their happy faces made me feel a sense that I was now back on the trail again. Back in the wilderness. Something missing earlier, as I passed day hiker after day hiker on this heavily-trafficked trail.
I don’t know if it’s because on my first crossing of Kearsarge Pass I was tired, having already crossed Glen Pass that morning, or if it was because after a zero day I was well-rested, but the path today seemed a LOT easier than I expected. In a lot of ways I found the ascent easier than coming up the other side. Today it took me almost the same amount of time to go up than it took me to come down the same path on Thursday, clocking it in in just over two hours. A full two hours less than I predicted it would take. All I could think was, thank God! What a relief that what had been daunting me the last day and a half was actually just an adorable little puppy dog of a climb. And so with the day’s pass easily out of the way, I marched on to reconnect with the JMT trail.
At the bottom of what would have been the Glen Pass’s descent, I stopped to eat lunch on a log next to Bubbs Creek. Today’s menu was sweet beef jerky (not my favourite), cheese and cheese fish crackers on a, you guessed it, tortilla. Not exactly mixing it up in the kitchen, but hey, you do what you gotta. Besides, it definitely did give me the energy I needed to start the long ascent up a section of Forester Pass. Because I’d heard weather warnings in the morning of a potential flash flood today, my plan was to stay high enough that I get a head-start on the pass, but not too high that storms could be a problem. About a mile out from the planned campground, I passed a northbound hiker and asked him how the weather had been, particularly yesterday. Surprisingly he said that it was raining, but not too bad. From where Flora and I viewed the weather yesterday it looked like the Gates Of Hell over the Sierras…you know, like if they hired Sauron’s Mordor decorator. I guess looks can be deceiving and all that.
As the hiker and I finished talking, Herb from back at the hotel caught up to my Speedy Gonzales legs and we hiked the final mile to camp. When we arrived, we saw a large campground with a couple of tents already pitched, but with plenty of sites still to go around. It was by a beautiful, gentle creek, about 5 miles (8 km) from the top of Forester Pass. Yes, THAT Forester Pass. You know, THE LAST PASS on the John Muir Trail before ascending Mount Whitney! I gratefully made camp while the blue skies were still blue and the sun was still shining. A fairly short hike day already in the bag, I reminded myself to chill because with only 21 miles (34 km) over 2 days to get to Guitar Lake, I’ve got me some time to kill.
With the weather teasing rain for the rest of the day, I decided to nestle in my tent. A decision helped along by a group of very loud campers, who all decided to pitch tents around me, boxing me in. My quiet place instead became escape through headphones and Avengers: Endgame. And why not? My journey is nearing its end, and Marvel has kind of been my jam on this trail. I only hope that with these inconsiderate hikers eating directly outside their (and so my) tents, that they won’t have tempted a bear in the night. Well, at least there was no flash flood today.
An early start, but not a long day ahead, I continued up Forester Pass. Like many passes, it’s not too bad at first, but the length of the up, up and more up starts to get to you at a certain point. After already walking for miles, I looked up at the looming mountains ahead and spoke out loud, “Holy shit, that’s a long way.” And it was. The terrain was difficult, though in all honesty it could have been worse. What did make it kick my arse though was, well, my own ambition, I suppose.
Just after hitting the trail for the day a couple of hours earlier, I noticed two people hiking behind me in the distance. I don’t know why, but ascents often trigger my competitive side, wanting to push myself to stay in some imaginary lead over others. Not to ‘win’ over them so much, but to prove to myself that I’m able. That I can do it. You know, a challenge to overcome. Character to chisel. And today was going to be one of those times. The couple, I told myself, would not reach the top of the pass before me.
I would randomly create these side-challenges even on day hike mountains back home, so this was not a new experience. What was new was the high altitude of this pass and, you know, the fact that I’d been hiking for over two weeks under the burden of a 40 pound pack. But that was not going to stop me today.
I managed to maintain the lead over another several miles, but before the final 2-mile (3 km) ascent, the couple finally started to gain on me. I was out of breath. I was tired. But I was also determined to get to the top first. As I rounded each switchback however, they inched closer and closer. It was brutal, it was steep, and a couple of times I almost resigned to the fact that they would eventually take over, but, finding my focus, I would endure.
The final ascent was before me, perhaps a few hundred meters to go, with the couple still gaining. Me grunting out loud with each step, like a tired horse. Step-after-step, switchback-after-switchback, “Just keep moving”, I drilled. “Just keep pushing.” As I rounded the last two switchbacks, I glanced back down the path behind me. The couple were still far enough behind. I knew I had it. A big grin on my face, but with no breath between it, I pushed through my final steps, placing one foot on top of the pass, then the other. The grin turning into a smile as wide as the valley around me. I knew I’d pushed through my own limitations once more. I had made it to the top of Forester Pass first (just). Perhaps even the first to the top today, having crossed no one coming in either direction for miles.
I’m not sure where the competitive side comes from, or why this ‘achievement’ filled me with such joy, but given the milestone of finishing my FINAL and HIGHEST pass of the John Muir Trail, I was just happy to give the ascent my all. And boy, did I! Now only have Mount Whitney to go!
The couple who had been gaining on me arrived at the top a minute or two after I did. They too said the climb kicked their arses, which oddly made me feel better about how it had affected me. The girl went by the trail name, Cheeto. The fella, Fart Bag (I’m sure it would’ve been worth asking about that one). They were section-hiking the PCT, summiting Whitney tomorrow, which admittedly I felt a little jealous of. I feel like I could physically handle hiking the additional 17 miles (27.5 km) to Guitar Lake today, allowing me to maintain momentum and also nab Whitney tomorrow. I’ve intentionally slowed my miles way down today and tomorrow however, so I can stretch 3 days into 4. Christina is picking me up at the end of the trail on Tuesday, so I have an extra day to play with. Perhaps the slowing of speed will be just what my body needs.
I offered to take the couple’s photo and they did the same for me. We then shot the shit for a spell before I made my way down the other side. The way down got very hairy with steep drop-offs the thin, rocky trail. It played complete havoc with my vertigo. Heights never used to be an issue for me, but a handful of years back that changed. Now the descent was giving me anxiety, much like, in what felt like months ago, back on Half Dome. I locked my eyes on the trail and repeated out loud, “Just focus on the path”, as I pushed downwards.
Oh, and did I mention it was bloody freezing on the way down?! It didn’t take long before I had to stop to layer up my clothing, just as I had to do last night to sleep. The altitude and temperature changes are no joke. When I descend from the no doubt freezing chill on Mount Whitney down to Whitney Portal, a drop of about 6,000 feet (1,828 meters), it’s going to feel like seasons changed from winter to summer in a matter of hours.
Once I had made it to the base of Forester Pass’s descent, I switched gears, moving at a leisurely pace. A couple of miles later, I approached a large boulder with two people sitting on it. As I got closer I had to double-take as it became clear the two hikers were kids (perhaps ages nine & seven). Obviously an unusual site in the middle of nowhere on such a big trail. “Hello”, I offered as I walked past. They replied with the wave. “Doing a bit of hiking?”, I continued. “Yeah”, the younger boy replied. “Just waiting for our parents”, pointing in the direction of a couple in their thirties, slowly making their way over the hill. When I caught up with the parents they told me that they were doing the whole John Muir Trail northbound as a family, taking 32 days (6 of them zeros), with their first major pass coming up in Forester shortly. I told them how badass they all were and wished them well. Talk about a family bonding life experience, eh?
With only limited miles to walk today, I pulled up to my planned campground at Tyndall Creek around midday. I sat and ate lunch before setting up camp, giving my tent time to dry from the aggressive condensation that had built up on it last night. On the menu was, you guessed it, tortillas! Today filled with Spam, cheese, Cheetos and a small pouch of Nano Salad, donated to me by Flora. Apparently, the tiny pouch is supposed to mimic ordering a side salad with your meal. Hmmm, just tastes like a shaking of herbs and spices to me. But hell, I’ll take it!
I spent the afternoon chilling on my camp chair by a nearby pond, researching the Whitney climb from user reviews on my GPS app and watching movies. Tomorrow should have a few challenges, but nothing diabolical. Come Tuesday morning, my body should be well-rested for the ascent up to the JMT endpoint on Mount Whitney.
As I was packing up camp this morning, it occurred to me that this time tomorrow I will be on top of Mount Whitney and that my journey will be over. I felt a little sad actually, even though I’m ready to go home. This trip has been unlike anything I’ve ever done before and I’ve relied on myself in a way I haven’t In a long time. I’ve missed me and it’s been brilliant to reconnect.
Although today had no passes, it was a day of many climbs up and down. The top of my first ascent for the day was Big Horn Plateau, a beautiful wide open space surrounded by mountains. Someone had previously suggested it as a camping ground to me, pointing out just how close to the stars you are up there, surrounded by 360 degrees of sky. I had opted for a campsite with more tree protection, but hot damn, I see the appeal! Just breathtaking. It would just be you and the universe surrounding you up there. And as I walked through, sun rising over a mountain to my left, I began chewing on the core values list Flora had walked me through back in Independence. In that moment, it became pretty clear that I’ve landed on contribution and freedom as my final two. And when I think about the last decade of my life, particularly when it comes to making decisions around career, an unsettlingly large majority percentage of decisions have not only not been taking those two factors into account, but so many have actually gone against those values, leaving me feeling anger, loss and emptiness. Moving forward in making decisions, I can ask myself, “Does this meet one or both of these values?” Simple, effective. So my thanks to Flora for taking the time to share this all with me. I’m looking forward to seeing where things go in life, bouncing each decision off my core values.
About 4 miles (6.5 km) into my day, I bumped into Ed and Herb, from back at Mount Williamson Hotel and Basecamp. It was at Wallace Creek Campground, which is where Herb said they would be staying when he passed me on the trail while I was setting up camp yesterday. It’s so nice to start the day seeing friendly faces, but it wouldn’t stop there.
I said my goodbyes one last time and made my way up to one of the many ascents for the day. When I reached the plateau at the top, I heard a familiar voice, “Is that Sasha?!”. I’d heard that excited question several times on this trail. Looking up, I firstly saw the red bead of Erin, followed by the owner of the voice, Eliza. “We’ve gotta stop meeting like this”, I joked. “You’re so easy to spot”, replied Eliza. “You’ve got such a distinctive look!” I’m not sure what that means, but, hell, I’ll take it as a compliment. We all began discussing Mount Whitney, exchanging info on the climb, which they are also summiting tomorrow. I told them about the popular sunrise ascent I’d be doing, so who knows? I might even finish the JMT journey with them at the summit. Friendly faces to share that experience with would be nice.
Later, after leapfrogging one another several times, I got to talking to a man in his late fifties/early sixties. He sported a beard, wore high shorts that revealed a cycling tattoo on his calf and he carried a weathered backpack which had clearly seen some shit. His trail name was Mad Max, a well-seasoned hiker from the South and he was on the final leg of his section-hike of the PCT, likely finishing later this week. He was supposed to finish last year, but had been evacuated out of VVR because of some serious fires that had swept through parts of the JMT. The fires were so aggressive that it was too dangerous for the cavalry to come in and rescue people. That was until a young military pilot, going against orders, bravely flew his chopper into “impossible terrain”, saving Mad Max and a handful of fortunate hikers from certain death. The stunt not only saved many lives, but earned the pilot a medal. An impressive, heroic tale. I’m just grateful fires haven’t been an issue for me or other hikers this year.
In the ‘real world’ Max is ex-military, but now teaches skydiving. In fact, he met his wife falling from a plane. Her dive instructor, their first kiss was thousands of feet up in the middle of a free fall. How badass is that?! Max talked about hiking all over the world and that the JMT is easily one of the most beautiful, but equally rugged trails, with some of the most unpredictable weather anywhere, so congratulated me on what I had achieved in making it this far. He went on, “Once you’ve done a trail, it’s yours forever. What you go through physically and mentally along the way, creates building blocks of character that will be with you for the rest of your life.” It was great getting to hear words like “character” and “yours forever” on my final miles on the trail. On an ascent our differing paces forced a goodbye. And after 30 minutes of getting to know someone, just like that they’re gone. That’s how it’s been out here. Small, but mighty interactions. Opening hearts to people of courage and great character. I’m honoured to be now counted among this community of JMT hikers.
Approaching Crabtree Meadows, I decided to take a detour off the trail to the campground itself, knowing there was an outhouse there. When I arrived it became clear that it was no more than a pit toilet placed outside on a pedestal, “protected” on the camping side by a way-too-short sheet of corrugated iron. Honestly though, I didn’t care if the entire camp could see, because I was about to do my business on a real, bonafide toilet seat. And my God, it was GLORIOUS!
Once I was done thanking the lavatory gods, I filtered some water in a nearby creek, before ascending my final 3 miles (5 km) up to Guitar Lake arriving around 11:30am. I was pleased I’d decided to take it easy mile-wise over the last few days. As a result, today really started to feel like a last day instead of a rush to the finish line. I was able to appreciate everything around me and I’m really starting to miss the trail already.
The Guitar Lake camping situation was pretty full by the time I arrived. Even though it was early the day, so many JMT hikers opt for this, the last water source until well after Whitney’s summit, as their launch spot for a sunrise ascent. Get in early, sleep early, rise early is the idea. I too aim to be there for sunrise, so found a tiny little spot protected from wind between two large rocks and made camp.
Nearby, three hikers who were also summiting Whitney tomorrow finished pitching their tents. They were John, David and Kristen, three siblings 10 days into their High Sierra Trail journey. We discussed the best time to wake, so as to make the summit by sunrise. I did the math on the ascent. It’s the same elevation gain of 3,000 feet (914 meters), but with 2 less miles than my morning Forester Pass ascension. While those figures give me a boost of confidence in getting it done, it doesn’t necessarily help me work out how long it will take to travel, given the 1,500 feet (457 meters) of higher of altitude that you’re dealing with. My best guess is between three to four hours of ascension from Guitar Lake. That being the case, I hope to wake at 1am, leaving by 2am at the latest.
I spent the leisurely afternoon soaking my feet in the lake and sitting on my camp chair looking up at Whitney towering over me. Despite a dozen people telling me that after the passes I’ve done the last three weeks, the Whitney ascent would be a cake walk, I can’t help feel nerves about tomorrow, being my last 4 miles (6.5 km) of the John Muir Trail (not counting the almost 11 miles, or 18 km, back down to Whitney Portal after the summit). I wouldn’t want the final stretch to be too easy now, now would I? Where’s the achievement in that?
The nerves about ascending Whitney and knowing I was to pack up camp in the middle of the night didn’t help with my sleep. After only two and a half hours of shuteye, I woke at 12:30am, ready to start my day. As I stepped out of my tent, I was stopped dead in my tracks by the sheer vibrancy of the stars above me. Without a moon or any other light muting their shine, it was like the sky had been turned up to eleven. The Milky Way, painted on the sky above, like my own private IMAX screen in the wild and shooting stars, frequent and bold, reminding me of just how much activity is obscured in a city night sky.
When I left the camp around 1am, mine was the only light shining its dim-red beam. Just bright enough to move safely through the night, but not too bright to disturb sleepers around me. I looked up at the silhouette of Mount Whitney cast against the bright starry sky and felt the menace of the dark suddenly bearing down on me. The idea of following a narrow path climbing this beast with nothing but a small red glow from my headlamp leading the way was starting to feel a little crazy. What if I got lost because I couldn’t see where I was going? What if I tripped to my death on loose rocks in the dark? What if I took a wrong turn, tumbling off a cliff into blackness? Nerves were starting to get the better of me. And at that moment, as I was leaving the outskirts of the pitch–black camp, another red light shone in my direction. “Are you heading up?”, the voice below the headlamp asked. And that was how I met Hayden.
Hayden was also finishing his southbound JMT journey on Whitney this morning. Originally from Alabama, but now based in Atlanta, he is a late twenties/early thirties music festival organiser and experienced hiker. “Want to travel up together?”, I asked. “Absolutely, let’s do it”, he responded. And so, red lights shining, we began ascending upwards into the darkness.
Hayden was a stronger hiker than I, having done the trail from Tuolumne Meadows is just 12 days. He also however liked the company, so he kindly matched his pace to mine, taking short breaks with me as we went. And I needed them. Perhaps it was lack of sleep, the altitude or knowing this was my last climb, but the ascent hurt. Every step in the dark, one I didn’t want to take. My body was strong, but I just couldn’t catch my breath. Nevertheless I’d done hard climbs before and knew the drill, so took the licks and just kept climbing. On occasion we would take a wrong turn in the dark, but would switch our headlamps to their brightest ‘white light’ setting, find the path again and keep moving. Times like that I was glad to have the company.
As we ascended we looked down to see a flurry of red and white headlamps below. Other hikers waking in the middle of the night, preparing to follow us up the mountain for sunrise. In pitch blackness, starlight cast a gentle glow over the surrounding mountains. It was like we were underwater, being treated to a bioluminescent nature show, staged just for us.
As we neared the top of the first section of the switchbacks, the path became thinner and the drop-offs much steeper. The higher we climbed, the more sheer the drop, and the more my anxiety started to grow. It seems silly to me that vertigo has become a problem in the last handful of years, but regardless of how or why, it is a very real problem. Panic starts to grow when I’m in very high situations and unless I switch off its source by looking away, I can go into a full blown panic attack. Unfortunately when you’re climbing a mountain, there isn’t a lot of places you can look away to, so the path becomes your one and only focus.
Once we finally passed Trail Crest and moved into the final 2 mile (3 km) stretch taking us to the summit, the drop-offs became aggressive and much worse than I had imagined. What made me even more nervous was that if it was causing such anxiety in the dark, what was it going to be like on my way back through this section in the daylight, when I can see what the mountain drops off into? At a certain point it got so bad I considered calling it a day, fearing having a panic attack on the way back and how dangerous a situation that would be. Thankfully my hiking buddy Hayden’s gentle demeanour helped a lot. He reminded me that I could take my time heading back and that other hikers would also be around to help. He also reminded me of how it would feel finishing this journey at the top of the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States. He was right and I was once again grateful to have climbed with him on this final push to the finish line.
As we progressed from Trail Crest to Whitney Summit, the gaps between its famous jagged peaks, or ‘needles’, jutting out from the ridge top, revealed the distant town of Lone Pine lit up out of the darkness with street lights. The gap however also acted like a wind tunnel, heaping freezing coldness onto us. With what felt like ice forming on my face, I wondered how toasty it was down in the town in that moment. I thought about the restaurant I’d booked there later that night. About the red wine, the steak, the clean clothes and about holding my wife’s hands over the dinner table. Another gust of wind, even more biting, quickly snapped me out of it. The climb wasn’t over yet. We had work to do. But first we stopped, layering up with every piece of clothing we could find. At that point, a pair of white lights that had been gaining on us for a while came into view, ready to pass us on the trail. The lights belonged to two hikers in their late twenties, trail names Sativa and Giggles. “You guys are moving so fast!”, Hayden cried out. “My grandfather was a mountain goat!”, Sativa replied as they disappeared into the darkness ahead.
Arriving at the summit around 5am, the sun, yet to find the horizon, painted orange and blue streaks across the black sky. Already up there were six people, each rugged up in layers of clothing or wrapped in their sleeping bags to fight off the bitter cold wind that would seep into your bones before you could add another layer. I sat, doing my best to enjoy the moment, soaking in the beauty forming colours on the horizon before me. I stumbled with my GPS, attempting to text my wife, Christina to share my experience, but my fingers refused to function, feeling almost frostbit through my barely-helping gloves. The rising sun was magical, but it didn’t take long before the cold became too unbearable, so I decided it was time to leave. Not before asking Sativa and Giggles to take my picture though. Captured to commemorate my journey is the perfectly appropriate me, fighting off icicles forming on my face and holding a sign which read, “Mount Whitney 14508”. I did it! I climbed the mountain and finished the John Muir Trail!…Now I just needed to descend the almost 11 miles (18 km) down to Whitney Portal.
Thankfully the trek back to a Trail Crest wasn’t as bad as I feared in the now forming daylight. Certainly the high drop-offs were crystal clear now, but the majesty of the views made it all just epic. When twinges of panic states to boil up, I did what I’ve done on previous passes, forcing my head down, repeating, “just focus on the path” out-loud over and again. And so it went, climbing down the mountain into Whitney Portal. Along the way I bumped into Sativa, Giggles and Hayden a handful of times, but ultimately it was a long, lonely, leg-breaking descent that seemed to never end.
When I finally arrived at the Portal car park around 11:30am my body was shattered. Not only from the 17 miles (27.5 km) of unforgiving terrain I had put it through, but from the lack of sleep and rest I had given it. That’s why seeing a well-stocked store and cafe ahead filled me with relief. Christina wouldn’t be picking me up for an hour or two, so I ditched the trash in my pack and beelined it to the cafe. As I approached, I heard that all-too-familiar call, “Is that Sasha?!” Sitting in a group outside the cafe doorway was the always bubbly Eilza and and her partner, Erin, along with Sativa, Giggles and Hayden. I had my own welcoming committee!
I headed into the store, grabbed a soda water, a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and ordered some fries. A beer never tasted so good as on the back of 234 miles (377 km). Conversations flowed in and out of each other, perhaps like troops sharing their battle experiences, which only those in combat would understand. Hearing my Australian accent, Sativa asked, “Where are you from, Oklahoma?” We laughed.
As the group grew, with more JMT’ers joining us, we spent the next hour or so sharing our stories about the trail, about our gear and about the origins of trail names. Eliza went by the handle, Prime Time, because she was always ready, always ‘on’. Erin was Pack Man, due to his deft precision in, well, packing his pack. Hayden went by Underhill, a reference to Frodo’s trail name in Lord Of The Rings. Giggles landed his name back in high school, presumably because of his laughing fits. The name stuck. Sativa had only recently been given his handle by a stranger, apparently related to the good weed he had his hands on. That left me. As all eyes moved in my direction, “I don’t have one yet”, I sheepishly shared. “What about Oklahoma?”, Sativa joked. We all burst into laughter. And so it was, my new trail name, Oklahoma…you know, because of my accent.
Christina arrived just after 1pm. I grabbed and held her, never wanting to let go. Each time I kissed her she started giggling, not used to the three plus weeks of facial hair that now almost obscured my face. God I missed her. God I was happy to be with her again. She is my love. She is the only home I need and I couldn’t be more grateful that she was here for my journey end.
We travelled into Lone Pine and grabbed some lunch together. I ate a club sandwich, her tacos. All I could think about was the jacuzzi at the hotel we would soon check into. My muscles, tight knots that craved soaking in the warm womb of a spa. Arriving at the hotel, I handed over my credit card and ID, carefully wrapped in a zip-lock bag that had been my wallet for the last several weeks. “Just so you know, our pool area is closed for maintenance”, blurted out the manager in passing, almost like he hadn’t just taken a swipe at my will to live. “Does that include the jacuzzi?”, I asked, already sure of the answer. We had booked this more expensive hotel, miles out of town, simply because it had a jacuzzi. When he confirmed there was nothing to soak in, we decided to look at other hotel options, deciding instead on a small, run-down hotel in the heart of town. It wasn’t anything fancy and didn’t have a jacuzzi, but a pool would be more than enough to help wash off three weeks of trail. Christina and I swam, talked about my experience, about life and about travel. We both want to do a short trip together next week and Tulum in Mexico is on the cards.
Afterwards, I put on a fresh pair of underwear with socks, some jeans and a black t-shirt that Christina had brought with her. It was the most comfortable clothing has ever felt on me. We made our way down to a local saloon, drank beer (Christina had a cider) and played pool. It was so nice to just go with the flow, with nowhere to be but with each other.
At 5pm we made our way to Seasons, a local restaurant that had been recommended to me several times. I had been dreaming about ordering a bottle of red wine to celebrate journey’s end, then devouring a steak dinner for at least the last week. We drank, we ate, we soaked in having each other again before heading back to the hotel where we made love and I had the best night’s sleep in almost a month.
Twenty days, 234 miles (377km) over 11 passes and some of the most beautiful, but rugged terrain in the world. It has been challenging, both physically and mentally, pushing many of what I previously thought were my own limits and teaching me self-reliance in a way I hadn’t experienced in a very long time. I’m sure in the coming days, weeks and months so much of the journey will reveal itself in ways I hadn’t the perspective in the moment to see. One thing that is clear as I sit, freshly showered in clean clothes and with town food in my belly, my experience of the John Muir Trail was extraordinary and I did it. Every step was mine and nobody can ever take that away from me.
Leave me a comment about your own trail experiences, adventures, or just to say hi!