John Muir Trail Travelogue

July 22, 2005


My brother, who works at REI, spends most of his time there fitting people for backpacks and selling tents and sleeping bags. Although we’ve done a fair amount of backpacking to set up base camp for mountaineerring trips, my brother didn’t think he had credibility as a backpaker.

He referred to some of the classics on the subject, such as Ray Jardine’s Beyond Backpacking and Lynne Wheldon’s video How to Hike the Pacific Crest Trail. He entertained a fantasy of hiking the PCT.

I suggested hiking the John Muir Trail instead. Going from Yosemite NP to Mt Whitney, it takes one through the most scenic portion of the Sierra Nevada. It’s the cream of the PCT, and it can be done in only a few weeks.

I made reservations in March, not without misgivings, since I am not an avid backpacker. I had visions of peakbagging along the way. Cathedral Pk and North Palisade looked interesting to me. However, we decided to limit ourselves to Half Dome and Mt Whitney, and complete the trail in an ambitious time of 14 days.

The trail is 211 miles long. However, it ends on the top of Mt. Whitney, and one must hike an additional 11 miles to the nearest road. We did not follow the trail exactly–starting at Glacier Point instead of Yosemite Valley, taking a side excursion up Half Dome, and using the shuttle to skip about 5 miles around the Devil’s Postpile. Still our mileage was probably about 220, though my daily numbers, computed using TOPO! software, only add up to 203.7 miles. The cumulative elevation gain of 46,300 feet is probably accurate.


July 9

I cajole Silvia to give us a ride up to Yosemite in my Escape. We leave in the afternoon and have to drop off a supply cache at Vermilion Valley Resort, which is at the end of a 20 mile, barely paved, one-lane road. It is midnight when we return to Fresno and check in to an ant-infested Super 8. As we unload from the car a guy leans on the railing outside of his room, watching us and drinking beer.

July 10 (Half Dome, 12.7 mi, 4600 ft)

We pick up our wilderness permit in the valley. The ranger attempts to convince us that there is too much snow and we should exit at Mammoth. Silvia drops us off at Glacier Point.

We hike down the Panorama Trail and join the JMT at Nevada falls. We pass a large group of JMTers who are tottering around like dancing bears under their heavy packs. At the junction with the Half Dome (8800 ft) trail we leave our packs with a Georgia girl suffering from blisters. We tag the summit via the cable route. We climb out on the diving board and peek over to enjoy the sickening 2000 ft of exposure.

July 11 (Tuolomne, 20.0 mi, 3300 ft)

Hiking through Long Meadow gives us an experience of how bad the mosquitos can be. We pass Cathedral Peak (10900 ft) and arrive at Tuolomne, where we eat burgers at the grill and buy some powdered Gatorade. We camp a few miles up the Lyell River. That night a bear works on my brother’s canister without success.

July 12 (Donahue Pass, 19.6 mi, 3200 ft)

We go over Donahue Pass (11000 ft) to the east of Mt Lyell (13100 ft), which has a small glacier on its N side. There is a lot of sun-cupped snow, with some post-holing near the snow-rock boundaries. We are well off route, and as a result we do some bush-whacking and boulder hopping. Still we pass about 12 people going over Donahue, including a family of JMTers. The father tells us this is his 5th time, the 1st was in 1976.

Near Thousand Island Lake we leave the JMT and take the River Trail down to Agnew Meadows (bad mosquitos) where we catch the 8pm shuttle into Mammoth and stay at the Rodeway Inn.

July 13 (Mammoth)

Coming back to the hotel with a latte I see Deena Castor (2004 Olympic bronze, marathon) on a training run. I buy a mosquito repellent shirt and a few other items. We watch “War of the Worlds (2005) **½”. My brother doesn’t know that germs will kill the martians. He mimics the battle sound that the tripods make, sort of a cross between a ferry horn and a man vomiting.

July 14 (Silver Pass, 23.4 mi, 6200 ft)

We pick up the JMT again at Red Meadows. We pass a couple of southbound JMTers filtering water. They tell us they made an attempt on Mt. Lyell. We go by Red Slate Mtn (13200 ft) and Red and White Mtn (12800 ft). Silver Pass (10900 ft) has enough snow to obscure the trail and get me lost. My brother prevents me from leading us down the wrong valley. We hope to make it to VVR, but nightfall catches us barely over the pass.

July 15 (Vermillion Valley Resort, 5.4 mi, 100 ft)

We get up and rush down to Lake Edison, just missing the 9:45 ferry back to VVR. An older gentleman, a PCT thru-hiker who is well off pace, gives us the low-down on the VVR. He tells us that it is expensive. Even though he washed dishes, he still spent $44 there. While he talks we stare dejectedly into space.

We take a dip in the lake and practice walking floating logs. An unscheduled 2 pm ferry picks us up. We spend the night in the hiker’s cabin with a PCTer with shin splints and a threesome doing the JMT. The threesome is a husband, wife, and her father. The husband is from Australia, the wife from Virginia and she’s hot. They live in London. They were doing the PCT, but because of the heavy snow they skipped ahead and did parts of Washington. Now they are back to do the JMT with her father. I’m concerned about having enough food for the 2nd half of the trip, since there aren’t any resupply points, so I ask them how long they are going to take to get to Whitney. They say 12 days. When her father leaves, the Virginian tells me that the reason they are going so slow is because of her father. It occurs to me that it is indelicate to ask a JMTer what his daily mileage is. It’s like asking someone what their salary is.

July 16 (Selden Pass, 22.6 mi, 4900 ft)

Our final bill at VVR is $168. This covers 4 meals, 4 beers, 4 ferry tickets, the cost of caching supplies, and some miscellaneous items. We take the morning ferry back out to the JMT with enough food for 7 days. We hope to cross a pass each day for the first 6 days, and summit Whitney and exit on the 7th.

I don’t remember much of Selden Pass (10900 ft). The area lacks notable peaks. The trip is growing long and making me feel mentally dull. I challenge myself to come up with a list of movies with a strong voyeuristic element, and I produce the following:

Rear Window (1954) ****
Porky’s (1982) *
Body Double (1984) ***
Blue Velvet (1986) ****
Sliver (1993) **

We descend into the canyon of the S fork of the San Joaquin. I’m struck by how deep and arid the canyon is. The slope is covered with manzanita, and many of the neighboring slopes are just barren bedrock. We make it to Piute Creek at nightfall, where we make a horrible campsite under a ponderosa. The soil is thin and full of river cobble. And teeming with ants.

July 17 (Muir Pass, 19.5 mi, 4400 ft)

We hike up into the magnificent Evolution Basin. Some of the prominent peaks here are:

Mt Mendel (13700 ft)
Mt Darwin (13800 ft)
Mt Haeckel (13400 ft)
Mt Wallace (13400 ft)
Mt Fiske (13500 ft)
Mt Warlowe (13200 ft)
Mt Huxley (13100 ft)
Mt Spencer (12400 ft)

The names are due to Theodore Solomons, who conceived the idea of the John Muir Trail in 1884 at the age of 14. The Evolution Traverse, completed by Peter Croft in 1999, crosses all of the peaks from Mendel to Huxley.

We push on to Muir Pass (12000 ft), flanked by Wanda Lake and Helen Lake, named after John Muir’s daughters. This is the hardest pass for us, because so many miles of the trail are covered with snow. Walking on snow requires more effort than scrambling through boulders and talus, so we frequently take to the rocks to circumnavigate patches of snow.

At the top of the pass we encounter a couple going the other way in mountain boots and gaiters. They are impressed by the fact that we wear trail runners. The girl tries to turn us on to flaxseed as a good backcountry food. My brother thinks they reek, though this may be the teapot calling the kettle black. In their case the offending fragrance is petruli oil.

July 18 (Mather Pass, 22.4 mi, 4400 ft)

We awake with the prospect of 15 miles of hiking just to get to the next pass. I convince my brother that we should nevertheless go over it today. Some ways beyond the junction with Bishop Pass trail, we get a view of the spectacular Middle Palisade (14000 ft). Coming over Mather Pass (12100 ft) we see Split Mtn (14100 ft), formerly known as South Palisade.

As we descend we meet a befuddled family of JMTers. One of them left his pants on the top of Mather Pass. The mother dropped her boot in the creek and it was swept away. They plan to bail via a side trail, but they don’t know how to inform the people who are hiking in to bring them supplies down the trail.

July 19 (Pinchot Pass & Glen Pass, 22.3 mi, 5700 ft)

Yesterday I had two bowel movements. I take it as an omen that today we will cross two passes.

Halfway between the two passes we find a suspension footbridge. My brother and I rock it as hard as we can while crossing it. On the other side I notice a sign admonishing hikers to cross it one at a time.

July 20 (Forester Pass, 21.5 mi, 5400 ft)

Forester Pass (13200 ft) is the highest pass on the PCT. It was the last part of the JMT to be completed in 1932. We find several boy scout troops clustered at the top. As we traverse some steep snow one of them tells me they don’t have nothing like this in Virginia.

We trudge across the high barren plain east of Mt Tyndall (14000 ft) and cross a tributary of the Kern River. A lost hiker with a paddle strapped to his back smiles at us as we ford the creek. The weather has turned bad for the first time. The gray skies thunder, and then a deluge forces us to don shell gear. We ford Wallace Ck in bare feet. As our feet dry we stew in a thick cloud of mosquitos.

July 21 (Mt. Whitney, 14.3 mi, 4100 ft)

We pass two southbound JMTers on the way up to the trail crest. They expect to finish in 15 days, the fastest of any of the people we met. We leave our packs at the crest and move rapidly to the summit (14,497.61 ft). Gray clouds are forming overhead and I’m worried there will be more lightning strikes.

Once on the Mt Whitney trail there are scores of people. We pass them all and get down to the Whitney Portal store at about 4pm, where we eat cheeseburgers and greasy fries. We buy clean T-shirts that proclaim that we climbed Mt Whitney and take showers. At the stop sign we stick out our thumbs, and within a half hour we get a ride from Levi and his girlfriend Stacey, climbers to judge from the bouldering pad and rock shoes in the back of their pickup. They drop us off in Lone Pine, and we wait at the Pizza Factory for Sandy, eating salad and drinking beer.


One Response to “John Muir Trail Travelogue”

  1. […] John Muir Trail Gear Filed under: hiking — clarkgrubb @ 3:29 pm See also food list and trip account. […]

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